Six Month Reflection

It’s almost impossible to believe that today marks six full months of travel. If you had told me this time last year that I would be in Bulgaria, having been on the road for 26 weeks, been through 15 countries, seen countless incredible sights, made so many wonderful friends, and managed to add seven more dogs to my Menagerie (oops), I would have rolled my eyes and told you you were crazier then I am, and that’s saying something. Yet here I sit, tucked in the little caravan that has been my home for the last six months, and I have done all of those things and more. It’s weird to contemplate how different my life is then I thought it would be a year ago, and more, to really grasp how I feel about the changes.

I “knew” travelling with all my animals around Europe with no plan and little money was going to be challenging. Everyone knew that. But I had no idea just how plain hard it would be. I could never have anticipated the stress involved with not being able to afford campsites, food, gas, and vet care. I couldn’t have known how often we would be coasting in to a truck stop on the last fumes of gas, or what it would be like to not be able to find any rest stops as the last rays of sun were setting behind yet another mountain. When we lost phone service and reliable WiFi we faced a generational challenge that I know our parents would have laughed at… but you can’t find truck stops on a map!!

The reality of six large dogs and five cats cooped up in a tiny caravan and car is actually brutal… there is nothing fun or exciting about it. It’s dirty, hairy, smelly, and crowded. No amount of vacuuming or wiping down can keep the sheer volume of animal at bay. On the days when there’s no place for off leash walking, the dogs pick fights with each other and the cats to work off energy. Or they bark incessantly until your head wants to explode and you can’t think straight.

I’ve struggled with nightmares and insomnia for years due to PTSD, but on this trip sleep has become a distant memory. The few hours I do catch are often interrupted by high beams at truck stops, drunks throwing up in front of the caravan, or dogs and cats simply stepping all over me in an effort to find a place to lay down. And the fact that I haven’t had any sleep doesn’t stop the fact that they all want breakfast, potty breaks, and walks at the crack of dawn. There’s no option to just throw the door open and let them run around the yard for a bit like back home… it requires fully getting up, getting dressed, putting on leashes, yelling for everyone to shut up and sit down so you can do all those things, and then being dragged out the door and across a parking lot to the nearest grass so the business can get underway. This is rain or shine, snow or blazing heat, day and night. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve closed my eyes and wished myself back to England in my great big house with my huge fenced garden and a husband to lean on when it gets to be too much for me. That’s not an option out here on the road so we just get on with it, albeit with plenty of griping and swearing at the animals and at each other when Trav and I have reached the end of our ropes.

Other challenges are more unexpected. Laundry has been our biggest shock. Laundromats such as we have back in the States are not a thing through much of Europe, especially not in small town, rural Europe where we spend the vast majority of our time. We can go a month between finding laundry options and while I have enough clothes to get through it, poor Travis suffers. More, the bedding suffers. Usually I would change sheets once a week at minimum… I’m used to hair but this is a whole different ball game and it drives me crazy. Showering is another issue. In countries with good truck stops we did okay, but when we entered the Balkans, things weren’t so easy. Here in Bulgaria we have access to a house and shower, except it’s winter time, and the pipes freeze regularly. We’ve gotten real good at washing by baby wipes or showering in 60 seconds when there’s enough hot water to do so. They claim that not washing your hair too often is actually good for it… well mine is being put to the ultimate test; I’m not sure I’m impressed.

The reality of life on the road is that there isn’t a lot of what you see in the photos or on those travel shows. We sight see once in a blue moon and in some counties have missed the best sights altogether because they aren’t practical with dogs in tow. It’s not one big adventure day to the next; most of the time it’s just trying to stretch the last few dollars to feed us all until next month’s pay check and be able to afford the gas to get us to the next country or safe place. It’s wondering how to cook food with no stove and no place to start a fire, and how to stay warm with no electricity when the temperatures drop below zero (the animals are real helpful there)! It’s never knowing where we are or where we’re going next, and often not being able to read the signs that are directing us there. It’s a lot of communication by hand and Google translate and often knowing that neither party has a clue what’s been said. It’s hard and it’s depressing and it’s frustrating and it’s often lonely even with each other and the animals for company.

But all that being said, I wouldn’t take back a single moment of the last six months. We maybe be living rough, we may be taking the longer, tougher road, but damn are we living life to the fullest. No one can say that we haven’t taken the bit in our teeth and ran with it.

I’ve bathed in a lake in Denmark and stood on the spot where two seas meet. I’ve traversed most of Poland in an attempt to enter the Ukraine (which admittedly failed). But I’ve walked the castle in Krakow and gazed through the gates of Auschwitz. I’ve ridden native horses in the Czech Republic and watched traditional song and dance at one of their local village fairs. We made friends there, from both the Czech and from all the way from China. In Austria we may have seen some of the worst of life, but we also saw some of the best. I drove Standardbred racehorses and summitted my first mountains. I rode in ski lifts with my service dogs and danced on the streets of Hallstatt with Wasi. I saw Vienna through my family’s eyes, rediscovered Austria’s beauty through them when it had all gone a bit sour. The friends we made it Austria will be ones we keep for life: we’ve revisited some already and have others coming to see us next month! I finally made it to Italy, and the magic of Venice. There’s more to discover there but at least I got a taste. A dear friend joined us there and made it all the more special.

Entering the Balkans, we had no expectations, no ideas of what life would be like here. In Croatia we were introduced to Rakia (ewww by the way), perfect beaches and the friendliest people around. Bosnia and Herzegovina stole my heart with its unexpected charm and harsh mountain beauty. There I rode horses free across lands littered with the ruins of ancient people’s. The recent tragedy only made the people’s determination to move forward all the more inspiring. We lived in a town that had been at the center of the war, where houses still bore the bullet holes and bombed out craters of the violence. Our hosts there has experienced the war first hand, one on the front lines, another having to give up his eight month old daughter to keep her safe. The shadows of what they lived through was often still visible in their eyes and their hard exterior, though when you got to know them, they were people just like us who wanted peace and prosperity just like people everywhere. They shared their stories and it was impossible not to feel their pain. It was humbling and frightening and inspiring all at once.

Our time in Serbia was too short but we reunited with one of the friends we made in Austria and he shared life there with us. We met his family, had dinner made by his grandmother (amazing by the way). We helped move a (very large) pig and played with some piglets. Our friend shared his family’a story with us, how life had improved for them but there was still more they hoped to do with the house. We talked about the protests in Belgrade and how politics are the same no matter where you are in the world. And again it was brought home to us how very alike people are, no matter where they may be… we’re really all the same at heart.

Now we’re in Bulgaria. In the last six months we’ve rescued two dogs and successfully rehomed one. The second dog has a home waiting for her when she weans her puppies. Somehow I’m once again raising a litter of six puppies born on my bed, nearly seven years exactly since my Nefsi was born. I was just divorced then too; how’s that for life coming full circle? My own dogs and cats are happy and healthy. Wasi will celebrate his one year birthday tomorrow; he will have spent exactly half his life living on the road. That’s one well travelled pup! We lost our precious Sami but we’ve never forgotten her, not even for a moment… she’s still apart of our Menagerie in spirit.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know where we will go when our time in Bulgaria is up, or how we will get there. Outside factors have made life all the more difficult right now; especially financially, but I imagine we will get through it. I long to return to England, to my horses, my friends, my life there, but I know it’s not possible right now. There’s so much more to see, so much more to do, and we’ve finally gotten the hang of this life on the road so I suppose we should take advantage; lord knows I’ll never do a trip quite this way again! But it’s certainly been one hell of an adventure so far, and I’m glad it’s not over yet!

Adventures in Sarajevo

I woke up today to the most fabulous blue skies you could ask for when your plan is to spend the day sight seeing.  Travis missed his flight and won’t be back until tomorrow, so I had the whole day to myself. I admit that I languished around the hotel for a few hours, enjoying a long hot shower and the fact that I had a queen sized bed all to myself (usually I share a single bed with Wasi… its crowded).  But eventually those blue skies were too tempting to ignore.

My initial plan was to spend the day driving along the sights at the outskirts of the city and up in the surrounding mountains so that I could get the dogs out of the car and do some walking.  However, attempting to find my way through a city like Sarajevo without a GPS proved next to impossible.  Even with the GPS to get me to my first sight, I got lost three times when the road it told me to turn on turned out to be literally too small for my Subaru to fit down.  I had to reverse down two roads, which as anyone who knows me could tell you, is really very terrifying.  It took me over an hour to end up at the Yellow Bastion, which is less then five minutes walk from my hotel.  The views of the city from there were breathtaking.

Unfortunately, while I was attempting to get myself out of there, an old man insisted on coming down a one lane road when I was already half way down it.  I tried to get over enough for him to get by, and scraped my front bumper against a wall (don’t worry, plastic bumper, no damage)!  That freaked me out enough to decide that driving for the day wasn’t worth the hassle and stress it was causing me, not to mention the wasted time and missed photo opportunities.  The down side of this decision was that it meant leaving all the dogs except Wasi in the car for a few hours, which just breaks my heart.  Fortunately the temperatures are cool now.

Wasi and I wandered down to Pigeon Square, where there actually are what seem like a million pigeons landing on everyone and begging for bread.  I thought about trying to convince some to land on Wasi, but he was watching them with a look in his eye that said he was hungry so instead we headed off to enjoy the market.  The last time I was here it was raining and night time, so there weren’t many people around.  Today the market was bustling with life, and it was hard to decide where to look and which little alleyway to walk down next.

Somehow, I found myself standing in front of Gazi Husrev Beg’s Mosque, the most monumental mosque of the Ottoman period and one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in BiH (so the tourist information sign outside it told me).  I stepped just a few feet in to the courtyard just to read that sign, and was promptly scolded by a guard to get my dog out.  A really lovely old man saw Wasi’s vest, and came forward and explained to the guard that he’s an Assistance Dog and the guard waved us on.  I actually hadn’t moved yet, as I was still immersed in the sign, when a second guard came over much more aggressively.  This time a young teenage boy stepped up to try and translate, but after a moment, I smiled and walked the few feet back out of the courtyard: I didn’t want to be disrespectful.  I never would have walked in the mosque with a dog, obviously, but I was disappointed I couldn’t wander around outside, as there was so much to see even there.

Instead, we headed towards “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures,” where the East meets the west.  It was incredible to literally feel like you were walking from one culture in to the next as you stepped across the line.  Where as old town is narrow, cobblestone streets, beautiful market stands and such vibrancy in colour, the west side is far more modern, larger buildings, bigger streets, and with a certain coolness to it after the warmth of the east side.  Can you tell I prefer Old Town?  I didn’t stay on the west side long, preferring to go back towards the hotel and find myself something to eat.  Wasi and I shared a pizza and fries and the attention of pretty much every passerby for about an hour.

Pet dogs seem fairly common here in the city, but not of the size and impressiveness of Wasi.  Obviously, I’m biased and think Wasi is pretty much the most gorgeous dog in the world, but even without that bias, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog is a striking and eye catching breed to be strolling around with.  Interestingly, despite the fact that everyone clearly wanted to approach, no one pet Wasi without me noticing and waving them over to give the okay, everyone was super respectful.  Wasi of course, was his usual adorable and snuggly self; that dog would go home with whoever gave him the best pets, he has no loyalty whatsoever.

After eating, I decided that I should take the dogs for a walk.  That’s right, all seven of them… together.  Its hard to pick and choose which dogs to leave behind, and with sunlight running out, I knew that I could either get them all out on one real beneficial walk, or only get little groups out on useless potty break walks that would leave them miserably full of energy and me feeling even guiltier then I already did for leaving them for a few hours.  I knew this was risky business, since I am no longer the young teenager that can handle countless dogs without even thinking about it.  But generally, I’ve always been able to handle all my dogs together, though I can’t actually remember the last time I walked them all on leash at the same time (usually at least some are loose).

I figured if I went uphill, away from the city centre, we probably wouldn’t run in to too many problems, and I was right.  Though we stopped every ten feet or so for me to make useless attempts at untangling the leashes, we managed a very unexciting hour of walking and I got some brilliant photos of the sunset over the city.  Even the stray cats were easy enough to handle, as my dogs all know the leave it command and seemed happy enough to listen as long as it meant we kept walking.  We also made the day of about a dozen taxi drivers, who probably have seen many unusual things during the course of their job, but seemed to find my pack particularly enthralling, and stopped to ask if they could take photos, which of course I obliged.  With seven dogs pulling me along, the fact that it was all very steeply uphill wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been either.

We were almost back to the car and the hotel, when I heard a yell and a whistle behind us.  I glanced back and to my horror, saw an unleashed brindle pitbull type dog chasing us down, its owner running helplessly behind it.  I immediately broke in to a jog, encouraging my dogs to continue moving forward and uphill.  The car was in sight when Syn caught our stalker out of the corner of her eye.  As if they have some sort of Twilight werewolf type mental connection, they all turned as one mass, while I tried to grab for the fence post to hold them back, and yelled frantically to the owner “my dogs aren’t friendly!”.  But my dogs weigh a combined 515 pounds, and they had turned downhill.  The next thing I knew, I was skiing across the cobblestones, this time on my butt, with that poor, friendly pitbull’s eminent death flashing before my eyes.  My dogs are actually all dog friendly individually, but when that pack mentality kicks in, so can the bloodlust.  And even seven friendly dogs coming at one poor dog at once is enough to make anyone fear the worst.

Just as we would have reached the dog, it seemed to realise the danger it was in, and turned back towards its owner.  Simultaneously, Nibble and Moomkin, neither of whom is known for their gracefulness, stumbled and fell, tripping the rest of them up and bringing me to a painful and sudden stop in the middle of the road.  I heard brakes screeching and looked up to see a taxi skidding to a stop behind me.  I managed to scramble to my feet and tried to get the dogs off the road, except they had become a tangled mess of legs and leashes.  I can’t even imagine what a sight that must have been, one tiny woman standing amidst seven mostly huge dogs, none of whom could seem to regain their feet.  Many onlookers were laughing, and despite the road rash on my bum, I couldn’t help but join them.  It’ll probably be a while before I forget this episode and think I can handle them all at once again.  It was worth it though, as I now have seven very sleepy dogs who are all content to rest for the night.  Needless to say, today was definitely one for the memory book!

TRAVEL POEM: Questions of Travel

Questions of Travel

by Elizabeth Bishop
 There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams 
hurry too rapidly down to the sea, 
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops 
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion, 
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
 
--For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains, 
aren't waterfalls yet, 
in a quick age or so, as ages go here, 
they probably will be.
 
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling, 
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, 
slime-hung and barnacled.
 

Think of the long trip home.
 
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? 
Where should we be today? 
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play 
in this strangest of theatres? 
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life 
in our bodies, we are determined to rush 
to see the sun the other way around? 
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world? 
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework, 
inexplicable and impenetrable, 
at any view, 
instantly seen and always, always delightful? 
Oh, must we dream our dreams 
and have them, too? 
And have we room 
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm? 

But surely it would have been a pity 
not to have seen the trees along this road, 
really exaggerated in their beauty, 
not to have seen them gesturing 
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
 
--Not to have had to stop for gas and heard 
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune 
of disparate wooden clogs 
carelessly clacking over 
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
 
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
 
Each pair there would have identical pitch.
) 
--A pity not to have heard 
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird 
who sings above the broken gasoline pump 
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque: 
three towers, five silver crosses.
 
--Yes, a pity not to have pondered, 
blurr'dly and inconclusively, 
on what connection can exist for centuries 
between the crudest wooden footwear 
and, careful and finicky, 
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear 
and, careful and finicky, 
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
 
--Never to have studied history in 
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
 
--And never to have had to listen to rain 
so much like politicians' speeches: 
two hours of unrelenting oratory 
and then a sudden golden silence 
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes: 

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come 
to imagined places, not just stay at home? 
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 
about just sitting quietly in one's room? 

Continent, city, country, society: 
the choice is never wide and never free.
 
And here, or there .
 .
 .
 No.
 Should we have stayed at home, 
wherever that may be?"