Prologue: Dublin Airport, 2nd of October.
I am, to put it mildly, a somewhat impulsive individual. What had begun as a trip down to New Zealand evolved rather rapidly, becoming initially a visit to some of the Pacific Islands, before settling on a full-blown circumnavigation of the globe, taking in Dubai, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Exactly why I chose to do this is unclear. There was undoubtedly an element of discovery for me (New Zealand, Australia and Canada are all terra incognita as far as I’m concerned). In addition, I would be touching base with a number of individuals who I haven’t seen for some time. However, if pressed, I would have to admit that a major factor in this trip is satisfying myself that the Earth is in fact round, rather than the eminently more sensible flat shape.
Ok, the last bit is a lie, but there is something about going round the world that appeals to me, beyond the places one sees along the way. Perhaps this is why I intended to squeeze so much into three weeks. Boredom is my greatest fear. I don’t holiday to relax, quite the opposite. A circumnavigation would keep me busy at all times, I hoped.
Having settled upon that, the next question was what theme to go on. Around The World In Eighty Days would probably fall afoul of some sort of copyright legislation, and in any case I would be beating Phileas Fogg’s target by more than eight weeks. So, after some thought, I resolved to go around the world in eighty beers, beer drinking being something of a hobby of mine. Eighty beers in three weeks would not make much of a challenge (I have upon occasion drank that much in one week), so to make it more interesting I decided it would have to be eighty different beers. This would present some tactical challenges. Wherever I went, I would have to drink the most obscure thing I could find, as anything mainstream (Bud, Heineken, etc) could be drank elsewhere. For that matter, I had no idea whether it was physically possible to find eighty different brews upon my route, barring finding New Zealand’s equivalent of the Porterhouse.
So anyway, with a vague plan, I set out. Phase one went off without a hitch, I got straight onto an Emirates flight from Dublin to Dubai. Of course, I ended up in a middle seat at the back, but this, to a seasoned traveller, is no bad thing. Being in a middle seat virtually prevents you from sitting beside a kid, and on a longhaul flight, this is a godsend. Sitting at the back is par for the course. Everyone wants a seat as close to the front as possible, so an easy way to balance the aircraft is to throw the staff to the back.
A problem arose very quickly into the flight. Given that Emirates is consistently rated among the best airlines in the world, my assumption was that there would be a wide selection of beers available. In this I was to be disappointed. Obviously Skytrax is full of wine drinkers, as Emirates can get away with offering the pitiful combination of either Heineken or Budweiser. Oh well, needs must, and I managed to cross those two off my list. In another point of pride for me, once again I found myself on an aircraft that had grossly underestimated the quantity of Heineken required by its passengers. Unlike with Asiana a few years ago, which was primarily down to heroic efforts on my part, I would have to share credit for drinking this flight dry with a number of people sitting around me, whose bacchanalian exertions matched or surpassed my own.
Over the years, relentless cost-cutting has meant that the average meal served on a plane would not be used for pigswill on the ground. Everyone is familiar with the horrors of UHT milk, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Lower air pressure makes it impossible to get a good hot cup of tea or coffee. The meals themselves are masterpieces of thrift. Everything is off the rack, and stuffed with enough preservatives that future archaeologists will have a wealth of data on the diet of early 21st century man. In fairness to Emirates, their meals are significantly better than the norm (Apparently Emirates spend £27 per passenger on catering, which would dwarf any Western carrier). The highlight of the affair was a praline and cream desert, which to my horror was declined by the person sitting beside me before I could persuade them otherwise.
Everyone I know says wonderful things about Dubai. This may be part of the reason I have absolutely no desire to visit the place. It seems to me to exude a false sort of glamour. I mean, it’s all very well and good to build the world’s tallest building on account of high land prices, but to do so simply for the sake of building the world’s tallest building? It smacks of trying too hard, and as everyone knows, it isn’t cool if you’re trying. All in all, as far as I could see the place is a gaudier, tackier version of Las Vegas, another destination that features prominently on my list of places not to go.
As a result, I was absolutely delighted when Servisair in Dublin decided to check my bags straight through to Sydney. This would give me a chance of getting the 2:15am flight rather than waiting to the morning. Lamentably, it was not to be. As I had known before leaving Dublin, that flight was jammed to the gills, and my prospects of getting on were only marginally better than my prospects of flying to Sydney on my own. No bother, time to wait for the morning flight. It was here that things began to come unstuck.
The first problem was retrieving my bag. If I was going to sit in an airport for nine hours I might as well have a change of clothes. It turned out Emirates had other ideas. As far as they were concerned, that bag was staying in the hall until such time as I got on a flight. Damnation…
The next problem waswhat to do. Given that the goal of this trip was widescale beer consumption, it was pretty obvious that the less time spent in an Islamic country, the better. For all the wonderful amenities offered on the far side of security, the landside part of Dubai Airport Terminal 3 is very sparse indeed. A (halal) Burger King, three coffee shops, and a (halal) Subway seemed to be the lot, which was not a good thing for a man chasing a bacon sandwich and some sort of obscure beer. Oh well, at the least the place had wi-fi, and the contents of my external hard drive kept me going for the rest. Messrs Simpson and Blackadder are a surprisingly good way of passing time in airports, as I was to repeatedly discover.
Anyway, six hours later I was back over in the standby area, when I hear two of the most dreaded phrases in staff travel: oversold and weight restricted. The former meant that there weren’t going to be any seats, the latter that even if there were, I wasn’t going to get one. Clearly, Sydney was out of the question for the next few days. As it turned out, so was anywhere in Australia. Time to recalculate.
A quick perusal of the departures for the day showed a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong at 18:10. Granted, it meant another nine hours in camel country, but at least I’d be on my way. A quick glance at the Cathay Pacific website said both that flight and one onwards to Auckland the next day were wide open. A one way ticket from Dubai to Auckland via Hong Kong could be had for four hundred euro. Of course, my miserly side kicked in and pointed out that a one way standby ticket could be had for half that, and if confirmed tickets were so cheap, then there should be no difficulty getting aboard. Standby it was, then.
Once this decision had been made, there was the small matter of retrieving my bag, which was currently MIA in the bowels of the transfer hall. In this respect I must say that Emirates’ legendary efficiency fell far short of my expectations. In their desire to standardise everything, they had a procedure for recovering luggage in this situation, which unfortunately took three hours. On the plus side, I managed to catch up on some sleep. Being asleep in Dubai was only marginally less interesting than being awake.
Eventually I was reunited with the bag, and more importantly the deodorant within. A seven hour flight, coupled with fourteen hours sitting around in a desert climate, had not done my hygiene any favours. To put it mildly, I smelled like the interior of a sausage factory. While in other circumstances this could prove useful (nothing guarantees an empty seat beside you on a flight like stinking to high heaven, short of taking out a Koran and periodically shouting “Allahu Akhbar”), Cathay Pac are A) notorious for being picky about what constitutes acceptable staff, and B) notable for being one of the few airlines that maybe, just maybe, might upgrade staff.
Anyway, bag recovered and Portugese shower had, I made my way over to Cathay Pacific, and was rewarded by being checked in immediately. Once again sucking diesel, I boarded the flight and immediately passed out, reviving on only four occasions, when I needed more Carlsberg (Cathay once again having a rather limited beer selection). Seven hours later I staggered off the aircraft in Hong Kong.
II: Hong Kong
Funny sort of situation. For years I had wanted to visit Hong Kong. I was already in the early planning stages for a trip there in February 2013. Now I was given the option of a full day there. Which I declined. A day in Hong Kong didn’t seem enough. If I did a day there, I wouldn’t see anything, I’d be in a rush, plus I’d be hauling around my luggage. And most importantly, I’d have an excuse not to go next year, having been there already. In addition, sighteseeing would have used up valuable beer and sleep time. At this point I had maybe four hours kip from the past forty-eight, so sitting down for a beer in Hong Kong proper might havecaused me to miss the flight on account of nodding off. So I resolved to wait around for fifteen hours in Chep Lap Kok Airport, and catch up with all the beer I didn’t get to drink in Dubai.
Fast forward eleven hours, and I’m deeply bored. Time to check in, methinks. Only it wasn’t. To my horror, the flight to Auckland, which had been wide open the previous day, had filled up alarmingly. In addition, all the flights to Australia were even fuller, so a lot of staff had decided to try their hand at Auckland. Nightmare. Suddenly I was on the standby list, with mixed prospects of getting on. With so many staff from Cathay Pac trying to get out, I kinda knew my chances were poor, but went through the motions. Back to the bar for three hours, before returning to the standby desk. No dice. At this point, two days behind schedule and largely dead from lack of sleep, I did the unthinkable: I purchased a full fare ticket for the next day.
For anyone who has never travelled standby, this is the ultimate defeat. It is a last resort action undertaken by those who have no choice. It also meant booking a hotel for the night, which on the plus side gave me another day in Hong Kong. On the minus side it maxed out my credit card. Oh well, shit happens. A quick cab and train ride into the city, and a quick trip to the nearest shop, and I conked out for the night in the Ramada.
Next day, the same problem presented itself. Ok, I was in Hong Kong proper, but on the other hand, I was still lugging a suitcase about, so sightseeing would be limited. In particular, the Peak was out. On the other hand, trying to take in Hong Kong in even two days would be an insult. I resolved to wander into the city centre, but only briefly, and to save a trip there for the future.
The next item on the agenda was to try and procure an upgrade. Having had to pay through the nose for a flight ticket, I figured I’d try and get bumped up to business class. After all, if the flight was as full as it looked, they might have to give a few lucky souls seats up the front. Once again, I was to be disappointed. On the plus side, I was now safely en route to Auckland. This flight seemed to have better beer stocks than the preceding ones, with the result I managed to put myself a few beers closer to my goal, though I was still behind schedule with that as well. To my chagrin, the flight once again ran out of Heineken, which seems to be recurring with worrying frequency. Anyway, eleven hours and a few dozen cans later, I was in New Zealand.
III: New Zealand
Standby travel has taught me a few things. Being able to blag is important. Listing for flights is not. United Airlines see you as more important than regular passengers. American Airlines staff will routinely lie to you about your prospects of getting on. Emirates staff in Dubai see you as a necessary evil. And, as I arrived in Auckland, I was about to learn another lesson: Under no circumstances travel with Jetstar. I had hoped to avoid it. Initially, Air New Zealand was going to be my carrier of choice, till Aer Lingus and them had a bit of a tiff, with the result that they no longer accept our tickets. However, what with me being a bit of a chancer, I decided to try anyway. Once again, my bad luck held, and a sharp-eyed checkin agent copped the lack of validity, to which I feigned ignorance. Oh well, Jetstar it was.
This meant three hours waiting. Once again, the pub was my friend here. However, I first went up to Jetstar to see what their procedure was. Essentially, I was fobbed off with the “come back a half an hour before and we’ll see” line. Fair enough, but I knew there were seats, so I could wait. Anyway, come the time, they declined to take me, while freely admitting the flight wasn’t full. “We’re not taking standby”, was the line. No reason advanced. It was a short flight, so there could be no weight issues. I can only assume they weren’t bothered taking me. At this point, thoroughly exasperated, I purchased another full fare ticket with Air New Zealand.
Anyway, the Wellington-Auckland flight is notoriously bouncy, so I largely discounted any sleep prospects on it, and planned to pass the time catching up with my Terry Pratchett collection. Problem was, my metabolism had other ideas. Sleep was happening whether I wanted it or not. No sooner had I taken the book out than it went into the seat pocket and I nodded off, sleeping through takeoff, approach and landing and only being awoken when the aircraft was largely disembarked by the passenger inside me, whose politeness and concern for my welfare had finally been overcome by his desire to get off the aircraft. Mortified, I fled the plane, only realising afterwards that I had left my book on board. I suppose at least some Air New Zealand staff may discover the wonders of Discworld as a result, but that to me is poor consolation.
The next matter was finding Kevin. Disdaining the traditional method of travelling to the airport to meet me, he had left a key for his apartment under a box outside, and vague instructions as to how to find him, what with he being out on the lash in Wellington. Finding the apartment was comparatively easy. A bit of practice with Google Earth had meant that all I needed was a bus number, which Kev supplied. Subsequently, things got rather Laurel and Hardy-esque. Having spent quitea bit on credit during the previous four days (Dubai-Ireland-New Zealand calls costing rather more than one would suspect), I was somewhat miffed to find that, once again, I had run out. My irritation was further increased by the fact that my backup plan involving payphones was stymied by their demands for my maxed-out credit card. As a consequence, I was forced to resort to the pre-mobile method of wandering into the city and checking bars until I found him. In a city of 300,000 soulds, this was perhaps ambitious, and soon enough I was forced to reconsider. A quick trip onto bar wifi sorted out my credit problem, and once again myself and Kevin were in phone communication. This didn’t really improve matters, as the directions he provided for the pub were about as much use as an open bar for a Muslim. Eventually, through a combination of blind luck and trial and error, I found him.
I shan’t burden you with the minutiae of the evening. Suffice it to say that Kevin remains his old self, amiably wandering through life without the kind of filter circuits that prevents normal people getting up to the nonsense he does. Having expended fifty-odd NZ dollars on a glass of whiskey (following considerable efforts in the beer department) and shouted this fact to all and sundry, Herr Walsh decided to head back to his place (An unusual occurrence, normally I’m the one who gives up). At some point during the journey back he discovered that his phone had taken an unplanned leave of absence, and only my frantic, sleep-starved persuasions convinced him to let the matter lie till the morning. Unfortunately, As we were entering the apartment building, I ventured an opinion as to where the phone might be found, whereupon Kevin decided to head back into the city with the goal of recovering it. Against all odds, this endeavour was successful. Unfortunately, in the effort to retrieve the phone, he lost the keys to the apartment. Efforts to kick the door down generated a lot of noise and damaged the door not a jot, so we were forced to sleep on the landing, not a pleasant situation at all. At some point in the early hours of Sunday we finally managed to call a locksmith, and proper sleep could be had.
Wellington is a nice city. Granted, it lacks the kind of tourist attractions a proper city should have, but it has character, a far rarer and more valuable currency. The sheer range of ethnic restaurants was perhaps unnerving for me, given that my idea of ethnic food extends no further than nachos, kebabs and pizza, but the city exudes the kind of cosmopolitan nature that poor Americans hate and rich Americans fake. Thankfully, microbreweries and speciality pubs were plentiful, allowing me to make up a lot of lost ground on my beer project. The days passed with plenty of references to my man-boobs and Kevin’s girth, but anyone who has met us knows this is par for the course between us. Mind you, the usual nonsense prevailed. Upon an evening where we encountered a random girl in a random pub, I decided to leave the field clear for Kev, and came up with the (to my drunken mind) wonderful idea of pretending to be gay to drive off the competition. Upon another occasion, I attempted to hustle someone at pool, only for him to attempt to hustle me back, and only blind luck saved me from a big payout. The aggrieved party subsequently squared up with Kev, but diplomacy and a bouncer prevented matters from escalating.
Anyway, hunger adequately sated, thirst adequately slaked, and horizons adequately broadened, it was time to travel onwards. Next on the itinerary was Sydney, where I would be spending two days before heading back to the Western Hemisphere. For once, fortune was with me, and I got onto the Qantas flight without a hitch. Considering my misadventures with standby travel, it was nice to meet someone who took the trouble to tell me the score, and even nicer to finally receive good news.
IV: Sydney and onwards
I am fond of the old gag about the difference between a yoghurt and Australia, namely that if you leave a yoghurt for three centuries it will at least develop a culture. That said, I like Aussies. Like Hong Kong, Sydney features prominently on my list of places to visit proper, rather than the two days I managed this time. More importantly from the circumnavigation point of view, I was rather pleased with Qantas from Wellington to Sydney (Pedants may note that this flight is in fact operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Qantas, Jetconnect, but to be honest it’s much the same, and I suspect I am the only person who ever noticed). Suddenly the idea of a thirteen-hour flight across the Pacific looked less daunting.
Every standby traveller harbours a secret hope of being upgraded, tempered by the knowledge that it never happens (except when it does…). However, failing the business class seat, there is one other favour that staff can do for each other, and that is to provide an extra seat. On those occasions that I man a standby desk, space permitting, staff will get two seats. After all, if it’s going a-begging, it might as well go to someone who’ll appreciate it. Qantas seem to have the same idea, and so I found myself flying to Sydney with three seats to play around with. Happy days. I like to have somewhere to dump books and whatnot, plus I am an awful person to sit beside, particularly if you have designs on the armrest. To quote Daffy Duck, it’s mine, all mine. Anyway, Qantas’s revenue passengers were spared the dubious pleasures of my company.
Wags occasionally deride Australians as being Americans in training, and it is true that the American influence is very prominent. However, there is a strong English feel to Sydney, and it is rather classier than I would have been led to believe. In contrast to Ireland, but in common with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world, pale ale was to be had in plentiful quantities. For someone whose experiences with Australian beer up to that point constituted Fosters (pretend beer, to be honest), and Castlemain XXXX (a very versatile brew, being both good for getting drunk and removing nail varnish) it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the country had a whole range of craft ales.
Aussie bars are much the same as any other bars except in one important respect: the pokies. Australians gamble twice as much as Irish every year, and nowhere is this more visible than in the bars. Jokes about two-up aside, the country has the same issues with gambling that Ireland has with booze, namely that the sheer prevalence of it masks those with genuine problems. Pokies (slot machines) are to be found in every bar, sometimes tucked to one side, sometimes not. The (usually male) patrons sit vacantly in front of them, periodically reloading them with more of the monopoly money that Australians call currency. I must say, the sight of all those tragically addicted people really was depressing, but another few beers cured me of that….
Periodically, coincidences happen. Occasionally, the odds these coincidences overcome can be staggering. So it was that when I was doing the tourist walk and was walking onto Circular Quay, the Pogues version of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” came on my Ipod. For the ignorant, the climax of this song is about the protagonist being carried onto Circular Quay, having lost his legs in Gallipoli. Out of five thousand or so songs on my Ipod, the only one that references Circular Quay came on. Such coincidences are the things that scare men into believing in God, though in my case I was more stoic. After all, there were about a dozen songs about Australia that hadn’t come on, nor did I hear any New Zealand related tune during my time there. “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” coming on as I walked onto Circular Quay may have been a long shot, but hey, sooner or later, long shots happen.
Anyway, Sydney was about the only place I played proper tourist. Lacking my Hawaiian shirt, I made do with wandering around and gawking at the buildings like an idiot. Somewhere on my phone I have photos of Sydney Harbour Bridge (a wonderful piece of infrastructure) and Sydney Opera House (given how uncultured they are, one had to wonder why Australia needs such a building). In any case, the whole Sydney business was by way of an extended interlude between New Zealand and my next destination: Canada. So it was that on the morning of October 13th, my 27th birthday, I showed up in Sydney Airport, head hurting, desperately in need of a drink, and ready to fly to Los Angeles.
Considering how jealously they guard their respective borders, getting onto a flight from Australia to the USA was simplicity itself. Walk up like a normal passenger, I was told, and I duly complied. None of this waiting around nonsense, I was checked in straight away, albeit down the back. My momentary irritation at this was quickly suppressed when I discovered that Qantas had once again provided me with three seats to play with. As birthday presents go, it was just what I always wanted.
Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and so it was to prove on this flight. Presumably in recognition of the fact that long-haul passengers like to sleep, Qantas seats recline rather steeply. As soon as our flight reached cruising altitude, I was rather painfully apprised of this fact by the passenger in front of me. In an attempt to save my knees, I reclined my own seat, only for an Asian lady to tap me on the shoulder and say “Solly? Please to not lean your seat” Fair enough. I don’t like putting others out, and as a standby passenger, my place is at the bottom of the pile. My seat duly went forward again. Some time later I had occasion to visit the toilet and discovered that the Asian lady wasn’t sitting behinde me, her daughter was. A daughter who, if she stretched her legs out fully, might just have reached the seat in front. A daughter who was watching TV and making lots of noise. And most importantly, a daughter who had her own seat fully reclined. Well, everyone has limits, and no amount of Sollies was going to keep my seat upright at this point.
Somewhere around this point we crossed the International Date Line, which meant it was the 12th of October again. Some time later it became the 13th again, which meant that I celebrated my 28th birthday within a few hours of my 27th, and was still 27. Confusing, I know. Meanwhile, the Asian problem behind me continued as the kid decided it would be a good idea to kick my seat and start making additional noise. Then the turbulence started. I like mild turbulence, but this was grab your cup turbulence, stuff was falling all over the place. In typical Aussie laid-backedness, at no point was there any instruction for passengers to return to their seats, despite the fact that people were being bounced around rather forcefully. On the plus side side, Qantas went to some effort to stuff me full of food so I arrived in Los Angeles less annoyed than might have been the case.
LA is truly a horrible place. It is as if someone read Dante’s Inferno or the book of Revelations and decided to attempt to put them into practice. It is a giant, featureless indictment of all that is wrong with modern society. Being essentially an overgrown suburb, the city lacks most of the things that give cities character, and instead offers unending legions of homeless people. The airport reflects these, and is in effect a monument to human misery. One queues at immigration. One queues to retrieve one’s bag. One queues for customs. One queues for checking in. One queues for security. One queues, it seems, in praise of human idleness. In fact, the queues make LAX less of an infrastructural hub and more of a temple to wasted time. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was forced to endure this rigmarole for three hours as the price of getting to Vancouver.
Unique among all the airlines I travelled with on this trip, Alaska Airlines supply ale on board. Dead tired and all as I was, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to add one to the collection. As it happened, sleep was to prove a difficult objective as, to my horror, a group of about thirty drunken Greeks were seated around me. The last thing one wants in this situation is to be surrounded by several dozen citizens of a nation renowned for their talkativeness, doubly so when they are on holiday. Having already endured a child on the previous flight and endured LAX in between, this seemed like a rather cruel little addendum from an especially capricious god. In any case, the flight, at two and a half hours, was mercifully short, and I arrived in Canada.
Sometimes, one has these weird revelations of self. Here I am, having travelled twenty thousand or so miles and having seen a large amount of the world, particularly its airports. More importantly, here I am, more than halfway through my trip and with thirty-eight beers yet to drink. Clearly, the project was falling behind schedule and urgent steps would have to be taken to get back on track.
The Pacific Northwest and British Columbia are consistently cited as being the most liveable region in the world, with Vancouver as its finest city. Certainly, the place is insanely cosmopolitan and high-brow. On the first night myself and Dara visited a pub with something of the order of forty draught beers on sale, a feat no Irish establishment could hope to match. The selection was breathtaking, especially in light of the fact that virtually all of it was local. Resolving not to make repeat choices of drink, we embarked on one of the most varied nights of beer consumption I have ever engaged in. Fortunately, myself and Dara being rather more level-headed than myself and Kevin, this binge did not result in any disappearing keys or nights spent sleeping rough.
At this point, jetlag was finally catching up with me. Several days I slept till four in the afternoon, rising to wander down to the city. Like Wellington and Sydney, the place boasts a crazy breadth of restaurants, reflecting its melting-pot nature. More unusually, North Vancouver is effectively separate from the rest of the city. Unlike Dublin, where the Liffey is a barrier only to the more snobbish denizens of the South Side, the Burrard Inlet divides Vancouver nearly as effectively as the Berlin Wall. Two bridges at opposite ends of the city and a ferry in the middle are all that link the disparate parts. In another cruel turn of fate, Dara and Ciaran have chosen to settle up a hill.
In one respect, I arrived at a bad time. Dara’s jobsearching had finally paid off bigtime, and he was starting while I was there. The presence of a tourist from the old country whose only objective was to get you drunk was perhaps of dubious benefit in these circumstances, though I managed to dial back my worst excesses (I hope). I even consented to a non-alcoholic evening, involving a visit to the cinema. In fairness, it was to a Bruce Willis film, so I can’t claim it was completely involuntary.
An interesting point about Irish bars in Vancouver (and also in Chicago, as I found out) is that the staff dress in attire more suited to Hooter’s than traditional bars of a country whose traditional attire for women was something rather more conservative. Mind you, as traditions go, it would be a good one to start. Our attempts to find a table quiz in proving fruitless, myself and Dara instead decided our best bet lay in sampling the Irish drinking houses. Once again, Vancouver’s fine selection of beers served us well, and more importantly kept me in hot pursuit of my goals.
Perhaps the oddest experience of my travels occurred in the equivalent of Moe’s Tavern in Vancouver. Myself and Dara were enjoying a couple of Sunday evening pints when we were accosted by an individual from “up north” (his words). Were one to draw a picture of the stereotypical Canadian twentysomething male, it would be a good description of this fellow. Burly, wearing a lumberjack shirt, and looking like he was shortchanged in the great-grandparent department. Also rather drunk. Anyway, upon figuring out we were Irish, he regaled us with his one bit of knowledge about Ireland. “Well then, I suppose you like…..potatoes!!!!”, as if this was a joke worthy of Oscar Wilde. A number of variants upon this joke (“How about those potatoes?” “How come you’re not eating potatoes”, etc) followed, as wel as repeated references to the Irish as spudmunchers. While I would admit to occasionally eating the odd potato, there is something surreal about being derided for stereotypes by a guy who looked like his hobbies were ice hockey and seal clubbing and whose lifetime’s ambition was to become a Mountie.
Anyway, next on the agenda: Chicago. To my surprise, I managed to navigate the complexities of Vancouver’s public transport system rather easily, so I made it to the airport in plenty of time. Like most American carriers, United have the vaguely irritating habit of keeping you on standby right up until boarding time, before taking you at the gate. Unlike the others, they don’t seem too inclined to contact you, you have to contact them. This presented a problem, as I only figured this out as the flight was boarding. The only person who was at the gate was a surly looking middle aged dispatcher, who really appeared as if he had far better things to be doing than facilitating a bedraggled staff passenger. I was left standing till the last minute, and deeply worried that he was simply going to ignore me, till without a word he handed me a boarding card. Only when I got on did I realise I had been upgraded to premium economy. Shows what I know about people.
To an outside observer, it would appear that I have something of a liking for Chicago, having been there three times this year. They would be right. Smaller and less hectic than New York, the city is still big enough to have a very distinctive character. Also, everyone is trying to screw you in one way, shape or form. My past two trips have seen me on the receiving end of a dodgy hotel bill and a conman, so at least this time I was somewhat prepared. And it would not be long before that preparedness was tested.
I was getting in a day ahead of the lads, so I had decided to take a room at a motel beside the airport for the night. When I informed the cabbie of my destination, his anger was palpable. After all, he could have been queueing in the rank for some time, and suddenly he was going to get a local run. I knew it, he knew it, and I was going to assuage his anger with a decent tip, until he switched off the meter and informed me that the journey would cost thirty dollars, at least three times what it should have. Having got the drop on me, he drove off in blissful ignorance of what I had planned.
A conversation about God and religion (I can fake religion very easily and he professed a deep faith) guilted the fellow into dropping his fare to a still extortionate twenty-five dollars. I duly produced the cash, then asked for a receipt. He explained that he couldn’t give me one. I explained that the sign on the back of his seat said he was obliged to, and that I had his cab number. Stalemate persisted until I told him I needed a receipt for any expenses over ten dollars, whereupon he felt compelled to revise his price downwards to a figure more to my liking and bearing some relationship to the actual cost of the trip. That’ll learn him.
Anyway, I managed to safely ensconce myself in my motel and acquire a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon to keep me company for the night. That, coupled with the largest Subway sandwich I have ever eaten, rather assuaged my irritation at the avaricious cabbie. Anyway, next day was time to meet the lads, who to my mild surprise managed to navigate the intricacies of standby travel and US immigration with a minimum of hassle. Onwards into the city.
Of course, differentials in jetlag were clearly going to play a part. I had been moving east the whole time, and shattered and all, I was still in a better state than my colleagues, who had just had their day extended by six hours, coupled with the tiring effect of air travel in and of itself. As a result, only Michael was able to keep up, Dave and Ross having given up at a relatively early stage. However, at this point, things were beginning to take their toll on me. At a pub on Division & Rush, Michael discovered a basketball and hoop, to his delight. The problem was that I decided to join in. Michael blind drunk would be better at basketball than me blind sober, so some of my efforts were going rather astray, which may have contributed to the fact that it was me who was ejected from the pub, despite Michael, by his own admission, being as drunk or worse than me. In any case, it was something of the order of 3am, and perhaps a good time to head back.
I should mention at this point that due to budgetary constraints, I had made the decision that we would book a room with two double beds and share. As any heterosexual male who has ever had to share a bed with another heterosexual male knows, this is a delicate situation that is usually resolved by both parties keeping a good deal of personal space between themselves and effectively sleeping at opposite edges of the bed. Unfortunately Dave hadn’t been informed of this tradition, and thus he improvised his own method. This involved dividing the bed into Dave’s space, which basically meant as much as he wanted, and my space, which meant anything he didn’t. The practical upshot of this was I found myself lying on the absolute edge of the bed, where any careless movement would result in an untimely encounter with the floor.
A further problem arose in the early hours of the next morning. Dave and Ross’s decision to go to bed early was paying dividends, as they woke up at six o’clock rather refreshed. Ross decided to celebrate this by shotgunning six cans, which woke myself and, about half an hour later, Michael. Being still inebriated from the previous night, Michael assumed that because he was awake it was now time to get up, with the result that he had us all dragged out of bed by eight in the morning, a situation that did not sit well with my hungover self. Nonetheless, it was decided to visit Navy Pier. At this point, Michael began to come to terms with just how much drink and how little sleep he had the previous night, and was wandering around like something out of a George Romero film. Disdaining the walk up and down the pier, he found a convenient bench and went to sleep for an hour.
Anyway, next on the agenda was the Signature Bar at the John Hancock Building for a few afternoon drinks, followed by dinner. The latter proved a trickier proposition than anticipated, as everywhere was requiring advance reservations. Finally, we found a pizzeria, which suited me as I had been singing the praises of deep dish pizzas. Only problem was there was a 90-minute waiting list. Oh well, at least we were getting fed. The next question was where to spend the next hour and a half. We resolved to try the hotel across the road, and found ourselves in the most upmarket bar I have ever seen. The place didn’t even serve draught beer. It resembled nothing so much as a bar from a James Bond film. The only stain against its character was that they would let four such disreputable individuals as ourselves in at all. As can be imagined, we stood out like a hatless guy at the Wailing Wall.
Not for the last time, we made a miscalculation about the size of portions at Chicago restaurants, which meant that when we finally got around to getting fed, nearly half our meal was left uneaten. Various solutions were proposed, ranging from the simple (my solution of just leaving it), to the crazy (Michael’s solution of selling it to someone in the queue to eat). Eventually, a compromise was agreed upon whereby Ross and Dave, who had once again pulled up short in the night’s drinking, having got rascally drunk during the day, attempted to donate it to one of the city’s homeless population on their way back to the hotel. When this failed, they left it on top of a bin outside the hotel and amused themselves by seeing how long before it was removed.
Anyway, next day was sports day, which was a problem as there were no NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL or MLS games to be had. A solution was found in the form of a college football game, which I am informed is a better live event than the NFL anyway. Of course, to my horror, the stadium was dry, but in fairness that was somewhat predictable. Live American football is considerably more engaging than its TV counterpart, and for once I believe I now know the rules, leaving the layout of logarithmic equations as the only thing I cannot remember no matter how many times I am told. Of course, the usual nonsense of constant stoppages prevailed, which breaks the flow of the game rather irritatingly. Myself and Michael amused ourselves with nonsense bets. In the end the game went right down to the wire, no doubt to the chagrin of the thousands of fans who left when the result looked beyond doubt, only to receive a shock when they turned on their car radios.
In most respects, that evening was a rather odd clone of the preceding one. Both times we ordered pizza for dinner. Both times we ordered too much. And both times it was only myself and Michael left standing at the end, though to give him his dues Dave put in a valiant effort to keep up. Ross’s drinking habit consists of lashing in the pints at a far greater rate than the rest of us, said tactic resulting in him crashing and burning at an early stage, and staggering off to the hotel. Capacious and all as Ross’s stomach is, he fails to understand that binge drinking is a marathon, not a sprint. At some point in the evening I referred to Michael as being a sex offender, which he then assumed was believed by all, and consequently spent the evening trying to refute said allegation to all and sundry, despite the fact that a) nobody believed me in the first place, and b) most of those who he denied it to were unaware of the original allegation.
Shopping is an activity I do only under protest. Clothes use money that could be spent on beer, and given the choice, I’d rather be naked and drunk than sober and clothed. Nonetheless, the others insisted, and so we spent Sunday making our way to an out-of-town mall in what can fairly be described as the middle of nowhere. While I went along, it was with some misgivings about whether or not I should buy anything. As a consequence, when the opportunity came to mind the bags while sitting in a bar, I volunteered my services, with the result that no shopping was done.
As I said, the mall was, to put it mildly, remote. Our public transport option consisted of an hour in a train followed by a twenty-minute cab ride. Unfortunately, we misconnected with our cab for the return journey, which meant that we missed our train and had to wait till midnight for the next one. This was subsequently compounded by our failure to locate a liquor store, with the result that our alcohol inventory consisted solely of one can of PBR that I had put in my bag for emergencies. So it was that when, at 2am, we made it back to the hotel, we were dangerously sober, and a trip to a pub seemed in order. Only problem was finding a place that was open. This was finally rectified and we found a rather fancy looking place with a revolving door. Of course, no sooner did I walk through then the bouncer told me to keep going in a voice that suggested that any dissent would be met with violence, so a hasty exit was on the cards. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that, bedraggled and bearded as I was after three weeks travelling, he might have taken me for one of the city’s homeless population.
Our final day in Chicago was spent on an architectural cruise, which I must say was a rather high-brow addition to what had been a singularly low-brow weekend. The lads were all happily quaffing ale and the like, while I was feeling drained. Three weeks of hard living were finally catching up with me. However, never show weakness in front of the troops and all that, I made a spirited attempt to match them drink for drink. By late afternoon, my exhaustion was largely forgotten (It would return the next day, when I slept for twenty-six hours), and it was in good spirits that we headed to the airport and homewards.
This was going to go down to the wire. Three hours to go, and three beers left to knock off the list. Aer Lingus would not be any use here, I knew the menu intimately and had checked its contents off long before. So it was O’Hare or bust. A perusal of the selection gave me an out. Bud Light, Miller Light and Amstel Light were available. Then I realised something. I couldn’t do it. I could not sully the seventy-seven different fine brews I had consumed over my travels by finishing on those three bottles of carbonated urine. No, far better to go down in gracious defeat than to win such a tainted victory. And so it was that I failed, but felt the better for it, and the bottle of Corona I had instead was that bit better for that knowledge.
Anyway, before long it was time to board the plane. As I was boarding the cabin manager recognised me, and asked if I wanted to sit up the front. Twenty-eight thousand miles, eighteen time zones, seven countries, and all of it in economy, bar a short flight in premium. And now, finally, an upgrade. So I did the unthinkable. I declined. After all, I was with the lads. And holidays are all about the people you’re with. I didn’t go to Wellington or Vancouver because they were places I really wanted to visit. I went to see Kev and Dara. Chicago was great and all, but the venue is merely a backdrop to the people, and I would take six hours in good economy class company over the solitude of a business class seat anytime. In any case, we were well-supplied with drink, and for once I was on a flight that didn’t run out of Heineken, so all’s well that ends well.
List of Beers consumed (Incomplete)
Sprig & Fern Blonde
American Amber Ale
Monteith Golden Lager
Export Extra Cold
Chomp Pale Ale
Summit Pale Ale
Kosciusko Pale Ale
James Squire Golden Ale
Pure Blonde Lager
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Blue Buck Ale
North Shore Ale
Hoyne Pale Ale
Cain and Abel
Sam Adams Oktoberfest