Brent and I arrived at Llandudno station to begin our Helpx in Wales, which we had just learned is pronounced “clan-did-no”. I count myself fortunate that most people in Wales also speak English because Welsh appears to be the least intuitive language we’ve encountered in our travels. Every word is an unpronounceable jumble filled with “w”s and “y”s and unusual letter combinations. As we waited outside the station in the waning daylight, our host, Alice, came screeching up in an old truck, wearing one of those peculiar “jester-style” hats that were popular in the 90s.
The drive to the B&B involved weaving up a steep mountain road at a pace that made Brent slightly nauseous. Alice’s son, Tybalt, was sitting in the back seat of the truck with a 10 week old Huskie puppy named Shadow curled up his lap. He constantly encouraged Alice to take bumpier and more winding routes home in an apparent attempt to increase the already roller coaster effect of the drive. Once we had driven far up into the mountains, Alice slowed down onto a small dirt path and leaned over into the back seat to ask Tybalt if he wanted to take Shadow out for a run. “Alright” he responded “one is stop, two is slow down and three is faster”. I wasn’t quite sure what all this meant. Tybalt climbed out holding Shadow and then plopped her down on the dirt road behind the truck. He hoisted himself up onto the truck’s bumper and then smacked the back window three times with his hand, evidently applying the pre-determined “go faster” signal. Alice drove along the dark road while Shadow ran behind the car and Tybalt slapped the window incessantly in a series of morse code signals to regulate the driving pace. I was completely stunned and a little bit impressed. This situation seemed like a classic accident waiting to happen: Tybalt could fall off the car, or Shadow could get hit by the car or even run off and become impossible to find in the dark, dense forest surrounding the road. I would soon come to learn that this kind of organized chaos is the foundation of life with this Welsh family.
We had been partly drawn to this Helpx in Wales because we would be helping in a B&B based out of a restored 19th century church. When we arrived, we found the juxtaposition of religious elements and the elements of a family home/business were even more supremely awesome than we had imagined. The B&B’s exterior has the statues and steeples of a normal church, but the building is surrounded by a large lawn filled with miscellaneous items including a jungle gym, canoes, a hottub and a rabbit pen. Upon entering the interior, we performed the maneuver that I’ve seen many guests do since upon entering, which is to crane our heads back and “whoa”. The main common area opens up to high vaulted ceilings with a stunning religious mosaic. There are stained glass windows lining the walls and part of a stone pulpit in one of the guest bedrooms. After settling into our cozy mountain-view room, I went to wash up in the bathroom. As I dried my face with a towel, I found myself eye-to-eye with a fluffy black and white cat sitting in the chair beside the sink. We’ve since nicknamed him “Bathroom Cat” because his favourite pastime appears to be sitting in the bathroom and staring creepily and unwaveringly at whoever enters as they perform their bathroom duties.
Alice is one of those people who knows an endless number of cool people and is constantly being asked to do interesting things. She seems to lead life in a rather frenetic manner and trying to keep up is certainly exciting. The B&B has an almost revolving door, with a constant inflow and outflow of people: Guests, other workawayers, family and friends. Nearly every day when I walk into the common room, I find I have to introduce myself to yet another stranger who seems equally at home here as I. One day, she’s driving us all out into the woods to drag a 24ft Christmas tree home, and another day we’re racing around a grocery store 2 minutes before closing time, or getting the B&B ready for the crew of “Russian TV”, whom she knows are planning to film something about the B&B when they arrive, but she’s not entirely sure what or why.
Our first weekend, she drove a bunch of guests and Helpx’ers down to the pub to listen to her middle-age rocker friend’s band perform. In characteristic fashion, one minute we’re sitting in a pub listening to the band play “Start Wearing Purple” and the next minute she’s suggesting that the band take us all caving the next morning. After a few beers, caving seemed like an amazing idea, but in the cool light of the following morning, I realized that it meant trekking into a wet, cold, pitch-black abandoned slate mine. We stumbled along the uneven rock floor while Rob, the crooner from the night before, told us about stalactites. They grow about 1 mm every 50 years, so the short point of calcium protruding from the ceiling actually indicated that the cave was well over 100 years old. I moved through the vast, maze-like interior, straining to see by the light of a head torch and grateful that I had decided to wear my bargain $5 Honest Ed’s neon pink rainboots. The first level of the mine was flooded, so our guides created a rope line across a murky 30ft drop into a lake. We were strapped into harnesses and propelled across the lake by pulling ourselves along the rope line. The particularly terrifying part of this was jumping off the rock ledge backwards in the beginning in order to create momentum. It was a literal leap of faith. The guides showed us “the museum”, which was a collection of late 19th century tools found throughout the mines by different cavers. To finish off the tour, we climbed up a vertical rock wall with water from the outside rushing down at us. We were, of course, supported by a rope and harness, but I was very conscious of the fact that although I probably wouldn’t fall to my death if I slipped, I’d certainly smack my body against the jagged rock wall. I clawed at the slippery rocks, grateful that it was too dark to see how far off the ground I was, and moved inch by terrifying inch towards the outside light to emerge at the top.
In short, every day in Wales is an adventure. In France and Spain, a rainy day felt like a disaster; it was always one day less for exploring and touring. In contrast, in Wales, tourists and locals alike seem resigned to the country’s schizophrenic climate and a day of poor weather isn’t a disappointment. Everyone simply throws on some wellies and a waterproof jacket and then runs outside with unsullied enthusiasm because neither rain, sleet, snow, nor hail can spoil the breathtaking beauty of Wales. Spain and France seemed to be painted in warm tones: The scenery was made up of bright blues and greens and everything appeared sun-kissed. Wales, on the other hand, exists in tones of steel blue, grey and mossy green. It’s wild and beautiful. It’s the kind of beauty the makes you tolerate being battered with icy rain, so that you can see the magical way the sun breaks through the clouds and touches the mountain peaks in the next moment.