It’s been 30 years since author Muriel Bolger went on her first press trip, but she admits the life of the travel writer isn’t all champagne and five-star stays. It’s so much more...
People often ask me how I became a travel writer, and I tell them, it’s all down to Ryanair and the nuns!
My first press trip was on their inaugural flight to London from Kerry when Ryanair was a regular airline and before they became low-cost. They had flown us to Farranfore from Dublin in a small plane that had once belonged to ABBA. That was in May 1989.
In June the same year, they opened direct flights to Paris, and I was invited along again, to be feted and spoiled; lobster dinner on the Seine, the Gardens and Palace at Versailles, the artists’ quarter at Montmartre, shopping in Galeries Lafayette, and much more besides. Both times we were presented with a cut glass brandy bowl, engraved to commemorate the occasion. These are now prized possessions.
Then there was the added bonus of being paid to write about the experiences. With such seduction, I thought, I could get used to this lifestyle, very easily. And I did.
My love of travel started much earlier. I was eleven when Mother Auxilia (yes, it was back in the days when nuns had names like that) taught us a poem by Clinton Scollard, “As I Came Down from Lebanon”. It spoke of mosques, minarets and bazaars, and I knew then that I had to see these things for myself.
Another nun, with the more manageable name of Winifred, had spent most of her life in Mauritius, before retiring to teach in Ireland. Looking back, she must have missed it dreadfully, because she constantly transported us there, painting word pictures of the coral reefs, vibrant flowers and the exotic plumage of the birds.
Once she brought some of her former pupils into class. They showed us how they wrapped their colourful saris, and we were mesmerised.
These were powerful influences by powerful women.
When I tell anyone that I’m a travel writer, they invariably ask what’s my favourite place? And my answer is always the same – I couldn’t possibly recommend anywhere. I’ve had memorable experiences in the most unlikely places and disappointing ones where I’d expected more.
It’s impossible to choose between the thundering Iguazu Falls in South America and the gushing geysers of Iceland, or the White Nights of St Petersburg and the glorious sunsets in Africa. And it’s also hard to beat sunrise over Killiney Bay or sunset in Connemara.
But it’s not always the places that linger in my memory, but the people I’ve met, often in the most unlikely places.
One of these was a woman in Italy, who walked by where I breakfasted every morning. She always stopped outside some stone steps that led into a concealed park across the road, put her pet on a lead and set off through the little gate. Curious, I followed one morning and discovered the steps led to a lemon and orange grove, its trees laden down fruit, a haven of shade from the unrelenting sun in Campania. I caught up with her and discovered her pet was a rabbit, called Mussolini. She told me she liked to take Mussolini out for a walk every day because they lived in an apartment and he had no space to play outside. “And besides, everyone talks to me,” she said. “And I like that. Once my walk is over, I pick up a few groceries – that’s my social interaction finished until the next day.”
In Barbados, I got lost and asked a local woman for directions. She went out of her way to take me there. I was early, and she joined me for a drink. I said I was going to visit an historic homestead, St Nicholas Abbey. Delighted, Sesane told me that was where her ancestors had lived and worked. She regaled me with tales of the Crop Over festivities, when the sugar harvest was in, and of how the little boys used to jump from one step to the other on the old mill wheel as it revolved, sometimes with fatal consequences.
She spoke with great pride and dignity about her forefathers and their lives.
At the Abbey, I discovered a framed list of names, in copperplate handwriting. It was dated 1822, and listed 140 workers, each with their value beside them in pounds, shillings and pence. The most valuable was €150; the least, a little girl called Mimbo, whose worth on paper was a mere £5.
I’ve often wondered – could she have been one of Sesane’s ancestors?
There’s no denying that being a travel writer is a terrific gig, but it’s not all pink champagne and five-star establishments. I once missed my connecting flight in Costa Rica, en route to the British Virgin Islands, and the airport closed down for the night. I was rescued by two pilots and a stewardess, who drove and found me a cheap hotel near the airport for the night. The cockroaches were an unexpected add-on.
As I said – it’s all down to Ryanair and the nuns!
Muriel Bolger’s new novel, A Degree of Truth (Hachette Ireland, approx €16), is out now.
Muriel Bolger is an Irish journalist and award-winning travel writer. In addition to her works of fiction, she has also written four books on her native city, including Dublin – City of Literature (O’Brien Press), which won the Travel Extra Travel Guide Book of the Year 2012.
Main photograph by Element5 Digital