I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to travel to some of the most renowned and remarkable places on earth. I have taken photos on my iPhone of landmarks that many people only get to see in history books and travel guides.
But looking back on my travels, I realize that it is often the unexpected — what you wouldn’t find in the guidebook — that tends to make for the most valuable and memorable experiences. At least, that's a realization I had one night in the city of Galway, Ireland, when I unwittingly found myself immersed in a sea of Irish folk dancing and singing in the streets.
The summer after I turned 18, I went on a 10-day trip to Ireland with my family. I can say with near certainty that my mother was a travel agent in a past life, because when we go on vacation together she never fails to have a meticulous itinerary outlined to maximize our sightseeing. Our trip to Ireland was no different.
In those 10 short days we did everything that you are supposed to do as a tourist in Ireland. We saw at least a half-dozen castles and abbeys, I kissed the Blarney Stone, we drove the Ring of Kerry, saw the Cliffs of Moher, I got a certification in Irish whiskey tasting during a tour of the Jameson Factory and we even got a flat tire while lost on some narrow back road that cut through Ireland’s picturesque countryside and waited six hours for a tow truck. In short, we were archetypal tourists in Ireland.
After a week of tours, sightseeing and photo-ops, we spent our last weekend in a coastal city of Galway. Unbeknown to us, it just so happened to be the weekend of the Galway Races. The Galway Races are essentially seven days of horse-racing and festivities, where it seems the whole country flocks to this one city on Ireland’s western coast. We unknowingly stumbled upon the epitome of Irish culture on the last night of the races, and thousands of Irish folk had flooded every inch of Galway for one last celebration.
Being 18 years old, the first time I had ever even sat at a bar was just a few days before, and now I was pub hopping through one of Ireland’s wildest blowouts. My older brother and sister and I danced and bopped through seas of people, all bouncing to Irish folk music, tipping street artists or jumping around to House of Pain cover bands.
The taverns were like labyrinths — I would walk up a flight of stairs, down a dark and narrow hallway looking for a bathroom, only to emerge onto a hidden dance floor, with another stage and another bar.
I polished my Irish-pub accent (speak fast and with an abundance of F-bombs), laughed, joked and danced among the natives, as I tipped-back pint after pint of dark and delicious Guinness. I have since refused to drink Guinness in the States because it seems like it loses its thick, creamy luster as it crosses the Atlantic.
At one point, an Irishman stood atop a bar and led the rowdy choir in a rendition of the song "Galway Girl," with me, front and center, raising my glass and singing along:
And I ask you now, tell me what would you do
If her hair was black and her eyes were blue
I've traveled around, I’ve been all over this world
Boys I ain't never seen nothing like a Galway Girl
I have traveled around, I’ve been all over this world, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like that night in Galway. To this day, I have never had any experience that felt so vibrant and full of life — singing and dancing and swaying with arms around one another, thousands upon thousands of them in taverns and in the streets.
Then there was me, a teenage tourist from Middle America, who for that night was much more than just a tourist. That night I was one of them, a comrade. I was not an observer, but a piece of the action, a part of the grand Irish spectacle that is the Galway Races.
There is nothing wrong with being a tourist — I cherish those memories dearly. I tell people to this day that the reason I'm blessed with eloquence is because I kissed the Blarney Stone and I had my Irish Whiskey Taster certification framed and hung up in my house.
But the moments that you go beyond being a tourist — when you find yourself immersed in the culture, when you find yourself collectively inebriated with thousands of people in the streets of Galway during the grand finale of a weeklong party — those are the moments that transcend any photo-op and will be at the top of your list of traveler's tales.
About the Author: Bennett Slavsky has worked throughout Michigan as a freelance writer and has been featured in such publications as the Grand Haven Tribune and the Detroit Free Press. He has a background in sustainability and is now working on writing and digital marketing at Keteka.