Let me be clear about one thing before I launch into my story: I do know how to drive. I have a valid driver’s license and while I don’t own a car, I believe I’ve had a hand in keeping Zipcar in business this year. I know how to drive manual cars and actually learned how to drive on a Toyota Celica two-door manual shift, so it would stand to reason that I can operate a stick-shift on any car in any country for the rest of my life. Right?
Over the past decade I’ve traveled through most of Europe, spent countless hours in airport bars and lounges, cuddled up next to perfect strangers as I squeezed into the middle seat on last-minutes flights, and scoured some of the best (and worst) hotels around the world. It’s a dream job and despite popular belief, it’s not easy. Being a travel writer means long days, even longer nights, and endless reporting from the road. Sleep is a luxury I don’t often get but I’m not complaining – I wouldn’t trade this for the world. However, it’s fair to say that even travel writers hit their point of exhaustion and as anyone knows, making decisions when you’re exhausted is never a good idea. With that, I give you my biggest travel mistake of the 2000s:
It was my first trip to the Emerald Isle and I was overjoyed. Visions of rolling green hills, farmers and sheep herders, bottomless glasses of whiskey and endless nights of Irish sing-a-longs filled my head as I reclined in my seat on my way to Shannon International Airport. Six hours later I arrived in Ireland, standing in line at the rental car counter waiting for the keys my mid-sized four-door Ford or ‘something similar.’
The man came from behind counter with the keys to the Ford and a neatly packed GPS system in a black box, and pointed to a little blue 4-door parked in spot 17. It didn’t seem that difficult. We’d both driven a stick-shift car in the past and now, all we had to do was remember that we’re driving on the opposite side of the road. Even on no sleep I can do this, or so I thought…I’ll spare you the details of the drive to the Cliffs of Moher in the fog, the flat tire somewhere between Shannon and Tralee, and the head-on collissions we escaped by thismuch as we drove our stick-shift car through Ireland. The pièce de résistance comes at the end of our trip as we made our way to the Dingle Penisula for a drive to Dingle Bay. (If you’ve been to the Dingle Peninsula you know what’s about to happen. For those travelers who haven’t been, pay close attention and repeat after me: automatic car.)
I took the wheel, put the pedal to the metal, and recalled the standard H-shift of my youth. The first part of the drive to Dingle was easy — flat roads and plenty of stop-signs allowed me the opportunity to get comfortable with the shift again, all the while driving on the wrong side of the road. As we slowly climbed up the mountain, I gazed out the window and admired the green hills filled with sheep, the old pubs on the side of the road, Gaelic signs and cows for miles. I had neglected to process one thing: I’m on a mountain — a steep mountain — with narrow lanes and sharp cruves. In order to get to Dingle Bay, one has to actually drive up and over the mountain.
The narrow roads were the least of my concerns. Do I downshift or switch to a higher gear? Do I ride the clutch or ride the brake? Do I gun it and hope for the best? At exactly the wrong moment, I looked in my rearview mirror and realized we were at what seemed like a 90-degree angle on the mountain, looking down on fields of sheep, perfectly spaced green patches of land, and miles of ocean. Panic stricken and realizing I had no where to go but up, I started my deep breathing (and silent praying).
The road was too narrow to turn around now, and trying to navigate a 3-point turn might have resulted with us in an unfortunate position with our car and a family of sheep. With the encouraging words of my friend in the passenger seat, I made it over the mountain just as it started to rain. I pulled the car over as the road widened, turned off the engine, handed my friend the keys, and calmly searched my bag for a Valium.
Moral of the story: While it’s fine to skimp on some things, like paying less for coach seats so you can afford a fancier hotel, it’s not a good idea to skimp out on the simple luxuires of the modern-day world, like automatic cars. Save yourself the headache – and the near-death experience – and just pay for an upgraded vehicle. Any travel writer will tell you so.