I have a love of the past, mostly my past, hence the 20 journals I have kept and scrapbooks I have made. A lot of these memories would have been long forgotten if I hadn’t scratched them into notebook paper, but there are a few experiences that will pop into my brain at random moments in the day without the prompt of a cheesy journal entry.
One of these reoccurring memories takes during the summer of my junior year when I studied abroad in London. My best friend and I had booked a weekend trip to Cardiff, Wales with a motley crew of poor college students and tourists from Sweden. We were initially drawn to the all-you-could-eat breakfast buffet advertised in the STA travel brochure, but grew even more excited after finding out that our 55 Euros also bought us a spot on a tour of Cardiff’s countryside by horseback.
Visions of lush countryside and quaint stone cottages appeared in my mind as our bus departed from its London terminal. There isn’t much I remember of the journey there, or even of Cardiff itself, except that our hotel room was varying shades of orange and that we had eaten so much at the breakfast buffet we later spent the entire day in Cardiff looking for a bathroom (which ended up being in the museum).
But what was lacking in the overall excitement was made up for when we met the girl that forgot she was allergic to horses.
Our bus dropped us off at a collection of stables settled in a countryside with a photo-shopped background of perfect rolling hills. It was what I imagined this obscure country to be, Disney-like and green . At the time (summer of 2000) I didn’t really know anything about Wales except that I thought it was a place where people talked like they had their mouths full. This still intrigued me though, and at the young age of 20 I was excited to jot down cliched descriptions of people in general and of their “sophistication” along with my open-mouth awe of the London grit. I hadn’t grown tired of the smell of piss and homeless people, because hey, they also had accents and wasn’t that crazy?!
As the bus pulled away, we all stood swatting flies, standing awkwardly in a semi-circle while our guides lectured us on the rules of horseback riding. I immediately spotted the oldest and sickest looking horses and willed them onto the Swedes. Which wasn’t saying much as all the horses were pretty equal in strength and cleanliness.
After horse-riding 101, we were assigned riding gear. This consisted of what seemed to be bullet proof vests that were padded to save us from wounds to the chest, back and for reasons I couldn’t understand, the tops of my shoulders as well – and a Mario Brother cannon helmet. We were apparently preparing for a medieval battle somewhere in the Welsh Hills. I was hoping that if this were the case, it wouldn’t be against those orcs in Lord of the Rings and the enemy would lean more toward the likes of mischievous faeries or drunk Scottish men who wandered in from Glasgow.
My best friend was directed toward a sorry-looking horse who no longer had the desire to live. With a back that sagged with the weight of the world, Sue’s long legs dangled so close to the ground it was if she was on a carousel ride. My steed wasn’t much better and flicked its head and crusty mane in staccato jerks to rid itself of flies that hovered in a buzzing halo.
At last, we were on the move for the hills. Single-file we trotted out onto the path, a bouncy, red-faced group of awkward equestrians. With the help of our bullet proof vests we all had amazing posture.
I must have been under-whelmed with the actual riding experience because it has slipped my mind. There are visions of Sue’s horse galloping at a giddy speed and then suddenly coming to a halt by barb wire fences and tall patches of thistles to chomp on vegetation. But that is really the only clear image I can recall. That, and the girl whose face began to swell.
She was somewhere in the middle of the group and she was sneezing and itching as we got started. Nothing was out of the ordinary in this because we were in the middle of grass and trees and a pollen cloud in the humid air. I was counting my blessings that I had saved an allergy pill for myself as my eyes had a tendency to react negatively in these conditions.
Half way through the ride, I noticed her face starting to resemble the reflection one might observe if said girl had looked in a fun-house mirror.
By the end she was one mass of red, puffy flesh with indentations where her eyes had once been and a mouth that was slobbering and crying at this unfortunate realization that she was allergic to horses. She was sort of laughing-crying to another girl, explaining that she was allergic to horses when she was little, but she just thought she would out grow that small detail. I found this to be an interesting chance to take. I can see trying this out if you were at a fair, and they had a petting zoo and you wanted to see if your throat would swell shut. But choosing to surround yourself with 20 other horses in a different country was a poor decision if you ask me.
We trotted our horses back to the stables, brushed them down and headed toward the shack that served as a bathroom. Rounding the corner I found the girl with the horse allergy holding a hose to her face, still fitted for battle. In my pocket I was obsessively rotating a tiny pill that I was going to pop in case the pollen started to get to me – a powerful antihistamine that would make life more bearable for someone with an allergic reaction.
Stopping a few feet away from where the dirt had turned to a patch of thick mud around her boots, I thought to myself that I should give her my allergy pill.
And then my hand took over, like a puppet string pulled taut from above, my wrist swung toward my mouth and my hand threw that pill on my dry tongue and shoved it down my parched throat hoping that it would dissolve before cutting off my air supply in an act of karma.
To this day I think of that moment with the woman with the fun-house face and limp hose in her hand. I think of her often and wonder why I can so easily bring that memory to the surface, apologizing softly to her, wherever she is. And then I laugh, because it was kind of funny, and it usually brightens my day.