The Traveler’s Martingale

I was in Donegal this morning, trying to stay clear of departing diners while making my way in through the door of the Blueberry Cafe, just off the main square. It’s actually a triangle, though even more strangely, they call it “The Diamond”. But that’s going to have to be another story.

The cafe must have been a townhouse at one point, as its entrance shares a set of stairs to the next level up. And it seemed like the easiest way to make room for the somewhat older gentleman and his son (grandson) was to take one step up. He paused and turned toward me as he came out, top of his head about level with my shoulders, and slowly scanned upwards to meet my eyes, with an expression that one might wear if suddenly encountering an emu, or other unexpected large animal.

His eyebrows moved up and down a moment while he considered me and shifted his weight a little on his cane, then spoke in a rich, slow, contemplative brogue.

“And where might a fellow get a hat like that?”

I was, of course, wearing my traveling hat. San Diego, I told him. He nodded approvingly.

“Might I try it on?”

I looked to his son/grandson at his side, who shrugged Why not?, then handed the hat over. The gentleman set it forward on his head in the manner of Bogart’s Sam Spade, and nodded again, then removed it and handed it back to me.

“That’s a fine hat.”

He thought a minute more. “And how did ye find yourself here?” No one in his party seemed in a particular hurry, or particularly worried by their patriarch’s spontaneous millinery-related interests.

I thought about telling him the larger story around the truth, but didn’t think I could put it together quickly enough, and in a way that wouldn’t ruin the magic. So I just pointed at the pastries behind the counter behind him and said I’d followed my nose.

He smiled broadly and nodded again.

“That’s a good nose you have on you, then. When you go home to San Diego, tell your friends to come to Donegal. Tell them it is God’s own country, and it will do them good.”

I promised I would, adding that it was my second time in Donegal, and that I was very glad to be back.

Both of which were exactly true. You see, I wasn’t supposed to be in Donegal this morning. I was supposed to be in Derry. Or Portrush, or maybe even Belfast. But four rounds into what I call the Traveler’s Martingale, I knew it was time to fold.

A Martingale is a betting strategy that, on its face, seems to guarantee that you’ll come out ahead. Eventually. The basic idea is that, if you lose, you double your bet and play again. If you lose that time, you double down again, and keep doubling until the statistically inevitable eventual win.

The danger of the Martingale is that it turns out you are equally likely to bottom out your pot and lose everything – or hit the house limit – before you get to that win. But it’s a seductive line of reasoning.


I find I often use a form of this double or nothing thinking while traveling. I tend to step out into the world with fewer concrete plans than many, so “what happens next” is often a gamble: What happens if we take that little windy road instead of the motorway? How about if we just wait until we get into town to figure out where we’re staying tonight? If the next roll of the dice doesn’t pan out, I’ll double down, and roll again.

So yesterday morning, when I left Donegal for the first time, I figured I’d have a look at the cliffs of Slieve League, then make my way up through wool country, headed northeast (damned near all the hand-knit sweaters you see in the south have labels from County Donegal).

It was spectacular scenery – crazy, wild North Atlantic vistas, dizzying passes and gaping green valleys.

And, because everyone kept telling me that I really needed to see Northern Ireland, I figured I’d keep going until I got to Derry/Londonderry, across the invisible border. Maybe stay the night and head on to Belfast before turning south to Dublin for my long-overdue flight back.

I’d done my reading about crossing into Northern Ireland. Road signs switch to mph, and you need British Pounds rather than Euros. But I had credit cards, and the Tesco website assured me that my Irish sim card would work anywhere in Europe.

Seemed simple enough until my phone dropped offline approaching Derry. Well, damn. I’m sure it’s just some setting, like enabling roaming. I’ll get to town, park, and figure it out. But “town” was more like “city” and I’d arrived at rush hour. I’ll skip the story of trying to find parking, except to note that all of the parking in the city is “pay by phone” (which, as you recall…).

Took me about an hour to give up on the prospect of actually parking anywhere in Derry long enough to debug things. Fine. Roll the dice – I’d been planning to continue on in the morning to Portrush and the Giant’s Causeway. It was still early evening, and Portrush was only an hour north and east. I somehow made it out of the city and on the road.

Problem I was having at that point was that, well, I had been on the road a while and was more urgently needing a bathroom. Next town over I stopped at the gas station and asked if I could use their facilities. The accent was impenetrable except for something about “You know where Johnny’s pool house is? No? Well you take a left there, and…”

Relief came halfway to Portrush in the form of a roadside picnic area with a nature trail. The picnic area was deserted because – oh, did I mention it was cold, howling wind, and raining sideways? But I finally had the time and comfort to turn my attention to debugging my phone problem. Except, of course, I was in a lovely mountain glade where The Was No Cell Signal.

Sigh. Roll the dice, keep going to Portrush, and figure it out there, okay?


Are any of you motorcycle racing fans? Portrush was sort of like the motorcycle equivalent of what you’d expect if you showed up in Monaco during the Grand Prix and expected 1) any of the normal roads to be open, and 2) anything but laughter when you asked about local accommodation. (Strangely, I was able to park.)

Somehow, no thanks to Google and some hitchhiked Wifi, I made it out of Portrush and back onto the main road. It was now seven p.m.  I had a couple of hours of light left, and Belfast was only an hour away. I could roll the dice again.

I pulled over and considered my options – how close was I to bottoming out? The rain kept coming down. I took a deep breath, pulled out onto the motorway, westbound, and didn’t stop again until I was back in Donegal.

5 responses to “The Traveler’s Martingale

  1. Wow! Now I must put Donegal onto my bucket list. I haven’t been to the Emerald Isle in quite a few years, but when I do I must make a point of going there even if my Mother’s family roots include County Cork.

    I was laughing about the gentleman asking to try your hat. I live in San Diego, and I don’t wear hats of any sort. Maybe I should start?

    Pablo, your blog posts are always an inspiration to me. Now I know I need to get off my deadbeat butt and start writing some more stories for my magazines.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought about clarifying to him that I didn’t actually live in San Diego – I bought the hat at a shop in Old Town on my way through – but I didn’t want to ruin his moment. It really was a lovely moment.

      If you do make it to Donegal, stop into the Blueberry Cafe and tell them you’re there because Charlie told a friend of yours you should come. +1 on the baked goods, but maybe give the coffee itself a pass. I now have fixed in my mind a particular somewhat coffee-like drink I will always think of as a “Donegal Latte”.


  2. Pingback: Serendipity Check | David Pablo Cohn·

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