THE PEOPLE WE MEET: Kristen & Krissy

It’s technically time for a “People We Meet” post, which I plan to do each week to highlight the best part of travelling: the connections we make with others.  But this week, with everything else going on, I want to talk about some people I already know, and who have known me, and supported me, through every step of life’s journey, not just this one: family.

Every Friday at 1400, the reminder on my phone goes off to Check-In with Kristen.  Kristen is my younger sister (only by 16 months and undoubtedly the more mature one regardless).  Over a year ago, Kristen learned from my mom the extent of some of the betrayals in my marriage.  She called me, furious on my behalf, but also frustrated that we didn’t keep in touch better and that she had had no idea things were so bad for me.  There was a lot of crying.  I’m not known for my keeping in touch skills, and though Kristen and I got on well enough in our adult years, we’d never been super close.  All that was to change, as she demanded that we have weekly check-ins to stay more involved with each other’s lives.  And so, every week since for over a year, Kristen calls me on her drive in to work on Friday mornings and we talk for 30 minute or so about what’s going on in our respective lives.  Occasionally we miss a call, always on my side due to inconsistent phone service or bad wifi; Kristen has never once failed to call.

On Thursdays I have another reminder set, this one for around noon my time.  This weekly call is with Krissy (ironically also a Kristin), my best friend of nearly 20 years.  Krissy drives to Harrisburg, a multi hour drive for her, on Thursdays for work, so we either talk on her ride in or her ride home for about two hours.  We miss our weekly phones call more often with me travelling because that time of day is a little harder for me to ensure I’m around wifi for (and the farther away I get into Europe, the later in the evening her ride home gets for me!), but we haven’t missed a single month in almost two years.  These calls started when my husband asked for a divorce… for nearly six months, she was the only family member I told or talked to about it.  It was a big deal when we started the regular check-ins, because there had been times where we had gone months, even close to a year without speaking, so this was completely unheard of.

For the past year and a half to two years, my life has revolved around these two phone calls.  I doubt either one of them realises how much they have come to matter to me.  No matter how bad the week has been, every Thursday, and every Friday, I can count on my phone going off and reminding me to touch base with two family members back home.  Often, I am busy, or distracted, or honestly just not in the mood to talk, but if I’m available, regardless of how I’m feeling, I either call myself or answer the call.  And I’m always glad I did afterwards.  Sometimes we talk about the crappy stuff, like my call with my sister today about what a mess I’ve gotten myself in to financially.  Sometimes all I want is to hear about their lives, especially because these two particular people are living what I pretty much consider to be the dream life (happy marriages, own their own homes, stable finances… you know, everything I’ve managed to screw up).  Ironically, my sister would probably argue that I’m the one living the dream, she wants to quit her job and travel Europe like me… the grass is always greener as they say!

Regardless of what we talk about, it soothes something in me to be able to count on the phone calls.  I left home at age 18 for college in Arizona (I grew up near Philadelphia, PA), and the closest I have ever lived to my family since was two brief months in 2010 in New Jersey with my aunt while I waited to go to boot camp… it was still a two hour drive from my parents and best friend.  Keeping in touch has never been my strong suit.  Homesickness didn’t plague me much, and I was generally content with just catching up when I was home.  I’ve always made new friends fairly easily so loneliness wasn’t often an issue.  But the last couple years have made me realise how much I missed out on by never making the effort.

I thought that these calls might die out while I was travelling, but though they are sometimes harder to make and often require calling each other back a million times per call, they’ve even more important to me then ever.  Connecting with or nourishing existing connections with the people we already know and love is just as important as making new connections, I’ve realised.  They offer a stability and sense of home that is very needed when travelling as I am, under the conditions my life is currently in.  They also serve as a reminder that there are people thinking of me, every Thursday and Friday if nothing else, which counts for a whole hell of a lot when your mental state is as fragile as mine often is these days (Yes, Mom, I know you are thinking of me every second of every day too!).  And they give a new perspective to my experiences as I share them, making my travel journey that much richer and more complete.  I think often in my life, I have spent so much time seeking out the new, the different, the adventure, that I’ve failed to value the familiar, the stable, the constant.  Kristen and Krissy remind me every week that I should never again neglect the connections that have stayed with me through every trial and every triumph.

Financial Woes

Today has been horrible.  Not even travel horrible but just life horrible made worse by the fact that I am travelling and a bajillion miles away from my mother when I would like nothing more then a hug.  It’s also compounded by the fact that I’m pretty much wholly responsible for all the horribleness because I have a not so endearing habit of making poor life choices, particularly of the financial variety.  My life is basically a complete and utter mess.  Which I knew when this trip started but feels so much heavier of a burden when you’re in a foreign country and don’t have a way home.

For those that are wondering, this trip is “funded” (if you can call scrapping by eating mainly peanut butter and jelly, feeding my dogs Pedigree and my cats Whiskas *gag* and having to camp at truck stops because you’re too broke for campsites “funded”) by my VA disability compensation payment.  I am rated 100% disabled due to complex PTSD (and a whole bunch of related crap but that’s the main one).  Generally speaking, 100% disability compensation is a fairly decent pay check, even for someone like me who pretty much can’t hold down a steady job to supplement it.  It becomes less decent when you’re like me, and half of it basically goes straight away towards trying to keep the monster debt from swallowing you whole.

I’ll say it outright so no one thinks I’m fishing for sympathy.  I got myself here, the debt is my fault.  Not only am I not a particularly good money manager, but I have the really bad habit of marrying men who are as good at spending money as I am, and just as good at getting divorces where I’m left holding the bag.  Lots of people seem to start their post-divorce lives with nice clean slates; in both of mine, I’ve started tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with the other half having taken on not a cent.  I’m either too nice or too stupid.  Whichever it is, I don’t value money like I clearly should.  Its not that I like a lot of things (although if its for the horses, I wanted all the things), its that I like experiences, with people.  And I often pay for those experiences so that I can have people to enjoy them with even when I can’t afford it.  I have a lot of faults, and bad money handling is one of them, but I’m generous with it…  whether I’m paying for an unrideable pony so he never gets abused again, paying to replace one of my dog’s hips so she can live pain free, or buying my best friend show clothes so she can show one of my horses, I’m not spending it on stuff, I just want to make lives better.

In any case, despite the supposedly decent check I’m cut every month, I live on the edge of the edge.  After subtracting the enormous monthly debt payments (of which I can only afford the minimum, so you can imagine how much progress I am not making), the car payment (somehow the ex got our almost entirely paid off new truck, and I’m still paying for the car I owned before we got married), car insurance, the phone bill (which I actually am not paying cause I can’t get free data overseas anymore anyways), and the livery for the two horses I still pay for (of my seven horses, I only kept two, my rescue pony who can’t be rehomed because he’s not actually really able to be handled, and my four year old who needed more time to grow and who I actually did try to lease out, but couldn’t find a lessor that would agree not to jump him – and he was not physically ready to be jumping yet)… I basically am left with $500 a month on which to feed myself, Travis, and the dogs and cats, gas the car, keep the car and caravan running, cover emergency vet bills and/or human doctor visits, and whatever other odds and ends that show up in the course of every day life, on or off the road.

I feed my dogs and cats food I would never have imagined six months ago I’d ever let them near because its all I can afford anymore.  Travis and I survive off of the food our family brought us when they visited, which he will again be bringing back with him in a resupply.  When we’re lucky enough to be in a place like the ranch, we usually get one free meal a day from our hosts, which helps keep the Mac and cheese and pb&j edible a little longer.  We don’t buy souvenirs from the places we visit, and we don’t go to any tourist places that require paying for tickets.  Sometimes, we end up stuck at rest stops because we’re out of gas and have to wait for the next pay check to come through to get on the road again.  Whenever we can, we try and find a host situation so that we can park up and save transport costs.  We are travelling, yes, and most days its amazing, yes, but lets just say that we’re “budget travellers” to the extreme.  Travis literally sleeps in the drivers seat of the car…

Today I learned that I missed my annual VA appointment to confirm that I am indeed, still disabled.  I have no notification, via eBenefits, email, or mail of said appointment, nor was I notified that my benefits were going to be cut off, but there you have it.  The VA, in all its medical glory, has decided that the best way to help treat a 100% disabled veteran whose main disabling issue is complex PTSD, with a history of suicidal struggles, is to cut their benefits in half (maybe more, I haven’t actually done the math) so that life can become that much more stressful then it already is!  And, because I am in BiH, the chances of me getting a makeup appointment quickly and efficiently so the matter can be resolved before I jump off the deep end is slim to none… after all the VA can barely handle paying out BAH for GI Bill recipients on home soil, how will they manage to make an appointment for a veteran currently stuck in a non-EU country?

To say that I am feeling rather panicked is an understatement.  I’m not on a work Visa, I can’t legally work in Europe, and going to a Bosnian jail just really doesn’t sound worth the risk of trying.  Getting a work visa isn’t an option, trust me on this, if it was, I would have one, but even without my mental health being questionable, those are hard to come by for Americans, and impossible for work with horses.  The halfed benefits payment means I can still cover the horses, thankfully, since they’re alive and sort of need to eat.  I’m working with the livery owner to see if Doodle (my youngster) can find a loaner that will respect his need to develop (I won’t risk his long term health no matter how broke I may be – by the way, for those thinking I should just sell him, he’s literally not worth a dime so even if my heart could take another loss… just no).  I can defer the car payments for up to two months.  But those debt payments?  I spent all day on the phone with my banks begging for help, but did you know, you can’t get debt help unless your account aren’t current, and my stubborn butt has never missed a single payment in my life.  So unless I want to tank my credit and miss payments, I have those still to pay.  My parents are trying their best to buy me some time, literally, but does anyone know how completely degrading and embarrassing it is to have to ask their parents for financial help at 31 years old? I feel like I got myself in to this mess, I should get myself out.  But I also feel out of options.

I left England, in part because I was homeless after the yard I was living on was put up for sale because the owners had their own dreams to pursue.  Finding housing with six dogs and five cats and for seven horses is next to impossible anywhere, but on my very fixed income, would have taken a complete miracle.  So I sold my standing caravan, sold a horse, loaned the others to long term loaners, sold as much of my crap as I could and stored the rest in a friend’s garage and hit the road.  I was prevented from selling by biggest asset, my motorcycle, by a financial gag order from my lovely ex, punishment because I made him file divorce papers on his own instead of jointly (seeing as how the divorce was in no way shape or form a joint decision, this didn’t seem unreasonable).  My hope was that by selling off so much, getting out from under the horse costs, and living super minimal, I could start to make some headway on the stifling debt.  But that hasn’t happened.  And now I’m homeless, jobless, Va compensation halved so completely broke, stuck outside the Schengen Area, and with a minimum two month wait until theres even a chance of anything being sorted (and that is assuming the VA considers my case urgent, manages to find a doctor I can see pronto, AND doesn’t decide that I’ve been magically cured in the last two years since my initial rating – considering I was married, working intermittently, and had a home back then, I’d like to think it seems pretty obvious that things have not exactly improved but the VA isn’t known for its common sense).

I’m at loss at what to do at this point.  I feel rather like I’m drowning in all the lovely Bosnian snow we’ve had lately.  I’m trying to remember that things could be much worse… I could be having to camp out in the caravan right now for example, with no electricity in -12 degrees Celsius, but instead I’m safe on the ranch, in a cabin that sometimes is even cozy when I make the fire work right.  I’m not starving, I have enough dog food to get through another week (though the cats will be out tomorrow, lord help us), my parents are helping me try and make sense of the mess I’ve made and haven’t even made a single judging comment (from the bottom of my heart, thank you for that), and Travis will be back in less then a week so at least then there’s someone to share the mental burden with.  Plus, there’s a lesson in here somewhere, a bigger one then stop spending money you don’t have when you’re depressed, since that one has actually finally sunk in, even if it was much too late.  I really wish we could just get to the lesson learned part though, and skip this disaster looming over my head just now.  Just one break would be an awfully nice change of pace, just this once.

Sunrise In Her Eye

Today was a simple day of errands: picked up the Suby (who now has had an oil change and a brand new battery), went to the pharmacy and was shocked to learn I could get refills on all my prescriptions without having to see a doctor, including my happy pills which I haven’t had for nearly two months, much to Travis’s dismay (except birth control, the pharmacists English wasn’t great, but I think she was telling me that they don’t do that in BiH… huh, who knew), and drove by the store for Snickers (my staple candy since there are no Reese’s to be had) and fire starter (because I’m still completely useless at starting one and use at least one box a day).  Really I only wrote this blog post at all because I wanted to share this stunning photo that I caught purely by chance of Nibble this morning… hope you enjoy the sunrise in her eye!

LOOKING BACK: The Shetland and Orkney Islands

Warning: Longer Post

I realised a few days after Travis left that I hadn’t been entirely truthful when I said this is the first time that I’ve been alone in who knows how many years.  Actually, I was surprised at myself for having forgotten the most recent time that I was completely and totally on my own, considering that those two weeks last year were actually the catalyst of this very trip.  So I think it might be a good time to remind myself that I actually have survived on my own before, while traveling, and having faced quite a few unexpected obstacles.

In August 2017, I was very much in denial about the pending end of my marriage.  For nearly six months, I had been steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that I was on the verge of losing the man I loved and a life I desperately wanted.  I’d been doing everything in my power to turn the tide towards reconciliation, including throwing myself whole heartedly in to a marriage renewal program I found online (Side note: While this program would ultimately fail to save my own marriage, I actually found it to be incredibly helpful and enlightening… it changed the entire way I think about marriage and long term relationships, and I would recommend it to any couple whether their relationship is in trouble or not.  In many ways, Marriage Fiteess by Mort Fertel taught me how to love, and I consider that one of the silver linings of having to get divorced, even if it came too late: https://marriagemax.com).

During this time, my husband had made a trip back to the States for family reasons, and as his return neared, I began to realise that I literally couldn’t face him.  I needed some time and some space from the situation to come to terms with what was happening, so I packed my bags one day, loaded Nefsi, Moomkin and Nibble in to my Subaru and hit the road.  I had absolutely no game place other than to drive “north” which I did aimlessly over the next couple days.  Eventually I found myself in Aberdeen, on the coast of Scotland.  I happened to drive by the ferry dock, and out of curiosity, stopped to see just where the ferries were headed.  Fifteen minutes later I walked out with a ticket to the Shetland Islands, which I had heard of only with reference to the Shetland pony and whose actual geographic location was a mystery to me.

You can probably imagine my shock when I boarded the ferry and learned that it was an eight hour, overnight trip to the Shetland Islands.  I hadn’t actually paid the least bit of attention when booking, and I assumed we were headed on a short trip to an island off the coast.  So ending up in a subarctic archipelago of over 100 islands was a surprise to say the least.  It turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of my life.

The Shetland Islands are not a hot spot tourist destination, which means that while people are definitely missing out, the islands remain a wonderfully pristine, almost untouched landscape.  There are pieces of Neolithic and Viking history dotting all of the islands, rarely preserved and almost never identified on any map or by sign.  The dogs and I spent a week wandering from island to island, stumbling over ruins that seemed to spring up out of the blue as we walked.  I walked through Viking places of worship, sat on beaches holding tools once used by ancient civilisations, and took in views that I could only have imagined in my dreams.  We slept in the car, sometimes at campsites, sometimes just where ever I could find.  The people were wonderful, the history fascinating, and the quiet and solitude, and absolute complete lack of phone service or wifi brought some much needed peace to my fried emotions.

At the end of my week in Shetland, I was taking a final drive up to the lighthouse on the south of the main island when I had a tyre blow out.  It was a Sunday, and thankfully, I was close enough to a major town to be able to reach an emergency car service… on the Scottish mainland.  It took a few hours and a great deal of begging, but eventually a local tow company agreed to bring me back in to Limerick, the main settlement and let me sleep at the garage until morning. First thing Monday, they gave me the bad news that they didn’t have the size tyres my Subaru Forester needed, and that it could take weeks to have the correct one shipped to them.  My best bet was to head for the Orkney Islands, which was more settled and should have a better selection.

So I booked another ferry ticket, this time for only a four hour journey south.  Unfortunately, the seas were not so calm for this trip, and the stress headache I had been nursing because of worry over the flat tyre turned in to a full blown, vicious migraine.  I hadn’t booked a cabin, and instead was sitting in the regular seating area where, about 30 minutes in to the roller coaster ride, I passed out.  I came around when Nefsi, who was traveling above deck with me (the mastiffs stayed in the car in the cargo hold), woke me with frantic licking.  At his insistence, I was able to gain my feet, bracing myself on him.  Of his own accord, he dragged me to mid ship, where he sought the first person he saw and whined adamantly to bring their attention to me slumped against the wall, blinded from the migraine.  A few hours later, when the ship captain came personally to wake me up and check that I had survived the rest of the journey, he told me that watching Nefsi work had been one of the most incredible things he and his crew had ever seen.  He was even more amazed when I informed him that Nefsi was not trained to brace, respond to migraines, or seek help from strangers…  but he wasn’t any more shocked then I was, who despite years with Nefsi at my side, couldn’t believe that he had known how to handle my sudden collapse and following blindness.  Once again, my dog had become what I needed without any training or guidance… my very own miracle.

When we arrived on the main Orkney Island, I was directed to the best mechanic in town, who was pleased to inform me that the had the size tyres I needed in stock.  A few moments later, we were both staring in dismay as not one, but two bolts snapped as we tried to remove them to change out the donut tyre.  Even worse, they did not have the right bolts available, and we would need to order them from the mainland; it would take a week for them to arrive.  I was still feeling sick from the ferry, and now I was frustrated and near desperation.  I was sleeping out of my car, unable to get home, alone with my dogs, and now I was facing the prospect of spending an entire week parked at a garage because the roads on the islands were no place to be driving on a donut.

Before I could even decide what I was going to spend the next week doing, the mechanic shocked me by motioning me over to a van parked just behind my own car.  It was his, and he didn’t need it for the week.  Would I like to take it while we waited on my bolts so that I could explore the islands and wouldn’t have to sleep at the garage?  The back seats were already out, so it would house the dogs nicely and I would easily be able to sleep in the back as I had been doing in the Suby.  I was shocked.  He was offering a perfect stranger his van so my trip wouldn’t be interrupted by my car troubles.  I gratefully accepted, marvelling at the kindness of people.

The van had no power steering, and anyone that knows me and my driving knows that made for a very funny breaking in period.  Reversing was especially challenging to start, and I spent most of the first day being passed on one lane roads by local drivers probably wondering why their friend’s van was struggling to make turns or go faster then 30 miles an hour.  But I did get the hang of it eventually, and the week that followed was truly spectacular.

The Orkney Islands are like a much more inhabited Shetland Islands, with the most notable difference being in how well preserved their historical sites are.  While it was possible to chance upon some old ruins here or there, more often then not, signs, visitor centres, and guide books were available to guide you around.  I stayed on the main island so that I would be close if my own car was unexpectedly finished, but there was plenty to see.  I bought a book that had a map in the back with each of the main sites marked and numbered.  I spent the week driving around the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site, exploring Skara Brae, walking around the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.  One of my favourite experiences was laying on a skateboard and pulleying myself in to the chambered tomb of Maes Howe.  I didn’t neglect some of the more “recent” history (and how amazing is it that 15th/16th/17th century ruins are recent there), taking time to see St. Magnus’ Cathedal, the Bishop’s Palace, the Earl’s Palace, and Skaill House.  In all, I managed to visit over half of the 40 sites on my map over the course of the week.

To this day, the Shetland and Orkney Islands are my favourite places that I’ve travelled to.  Spending two weeks exploring the civilisations and ruins that are older then the pyramids was mind boggling and truly humbling.  It was impossible not to reflect on my own situation in life and see it “in the big scheme of things.”  When I returned to England, and the man who no longer wanted me, I finally had begun to accept that the life I had dreamed of wasn’t coming true.  And the idea of travelling with my dogs as a path towards healing had taken root in my brain.  When my life finally finished imploding all the way a little over a year later, that idea seemed to bloom and grow until it couldn’t be ignored any longer.  And so, here I am, having last year visited the northernmost church in Britain, and now having taken in a service in BiH.  How far I have come, in more ways then one!

Winter is Coming

Today has been an exciting day, for all the wrong reasons.  These sort of days are bound to happen on a trip as long as this one, but they sure do make us miss home sometimes.

The day started with the promise of foul weather incoming over the next few days.  This wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that Travis is leaving for the States tomorrow and flying out of Sarajevo, a three hour drive over mountains from Kupres.  The prospect of bad weather had us deciding that we had better make for Sarajevo a day early so there was no risk of Travis missing his flight.  This also meant a hotel for the night, situating the cats for a couple days on their own, and packing seven dogs in to a car that really are not keen to be crammed together for long lengths of time.  The cost of a hotel was my main concern, as my finances are strained well past the breaking point already; thank god for parents who were willing to lend a helping hand there.

On the way to Sarajevo, we made our scheduled stop in Bugojno to have Syn and Wasi seen by our vet.  Both dogs seemed stable this morning, but were clearly still not improving.  The vet diagnosed them both with Babesia, a dangerous tick borne illness that is prevalent and often fatal here in BiH.  As a precaution, he recommended treating all six of our dogs with Imizol to head it off in the others and hopefully get Syn and Wasi on the way to recovery.  Everyone but Syn reacted fine to the injection; she promptly vomited and has been going downhill ever since.  There’s nothing worse then being on the road with a sick dog, and its thousands of times worse when the thought is in the back of your head that the disease is often fatal.  However, Syn did eat a full dinner tonight, and seems to be enjoying the hotel digs (she and Wasi are even being featured on the hotel’s instagram account, check them out @hotelazizasarajevo), so we’re hoping the medication is starting to kick in.  A blood transfusion is the next step, and that’s a daunting undertaking no matter where you are, so I’m hoping hard it doesn’t come to that.

Following the vet visit, we headed to the auto shop to attempt to finally replace the battery in the Suby, which has been dying steadily since Austria.  My trusty Subaru Forester has been as amazing as anyone could ask a car to be over the last seven years.  I bought her in CA in 2012, brand new, the first vehicle I’d ever purchased.  Since then, she’s travelled not only through over 25 states with me, but also through nearly half the countries of Europe with more to come.  She’s slowing down though, and the battery isn’t the only thing that needs some help (aside from the battery, she needs a routine oil change and minor service, new brakes, and her fuel injectors are in rough shape).  We’re doing our best to get her taken care of as we can afford it.  Unfortunately, while attempting to purchase her a new battery, we discovered that there is another problem, one which we do not currently have an actual name for because the mechanic spoke no English and the auto parts clerk’s was limited to “the engine is broke.”

What that means is anyone’s guess, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of news we needed on a day when we’d already spent the little remaining savings I had left treating sickly dogs.  Worse, the mechanic refused to do any actual diagnostics because as he literally pointed out by tapping the Subaru symbol and throwing up his hands, they don’t stock parts for Suby’s here.  Another blow on an already shitty day.  Since we’re in Sarajevo and its a major city, I’m going to try to find an auto shop here that may be able to at least order the parts in, but I’ll admit that this is an area where I always feel like a fish out of water.  One of the main reasons that I opted to travel Europe in the company of my cousin was that I knew there was the chance of running in to car issues, and I wanted someone around that had some idea of what they might be talking about.  The prospect of having to deal with this alone after Travis leaves tomorrow, in a country with no Subaru dealership, and with a notable language barrier not to mention my own lack of auto knowledge has me bordering on an anxiety attack already and its still a whole sleep away.

I’m trying to remind myself that this is the sort of thing that I need to learn to face and deal with in order to grow in to the complete person I want to be.  Overcoming adversity, whether its sick dogs or a car whose “engine in broke,” is half the point of this entire trip in the first place.  But I freely admit to being nervous, even downright scared.  As of tomorrow, I’ll be entirely on my own (if I don’t count the furry crew) for the very first time since I was married over five years ago…  and it seems like the problems are piling up as fast as the snow I can smell in the air.  Winter is coming, and I’m not at all sure that I’m ready to face it.  But I guess I have to be don’t I?

LOOKING BACK: Sick as a Dog

Warning: Longer post!

One of the most stressful parts of travelling with pets is the fear of what will happen if one (or all) of them get sick, injured, or otherwise in to the sort of trouble that animals have a knack for getting in to.  With twelve in home pets and seven horses, vet visits have always been a regular part of my life, but the worry about them increases tenfold when you’re living on the road in unfamiliar countries.  Cultural differences can impact everything from office hours, emergency access, medication types, surgical standards, and my worst fear, the emotional value of a pet.  This weekend we’ve been dealing with two dogs who have picked up what are likely tick borne illnesses, and its had me reflecting on the veterinary experiences we’ve had on this trip so far (of which there have been quite a few).

First, for those considering travel with pets, its important to mention that we did a whole lot of pre-trip preparation before embarking on this journey.  All twelve of our animals were Passported, wormed, vaccinated, and cleared by a veterinarian for travel.  We had to research every single country that we were considering visiting to ensure that they would meet import requirements no matter what border we crossed.  Additionally, because half of our dogs have pre-existing conditions, we stocked up on a variety of prescription pain medications to be sure we could keep them comfortable for the duration of the trip.  And of course, there’s the need to be prepared for fleas, ticks, and other parasites.  The total preparation costs for the animals alone exceeded $2,500… I’m still paying some of it off!

We encountered our first vet fairly early in to our journey.  Following Denmark, our plan was to proceed to Norway before visiting the other Scandinavian countries.  Both Norway and Finland (like the United Kingdom), require that dogs have a tapeworm treatment 24 hours prior to entering the country.  So our first visit to a vet was to fulfil this requirement.  The vet in Denmark was equivalent to one we would see in England, most especially in terms of cost.  It cost around $300, and ultimately would turn out to have been a complete waste of money…  this was the first instance of my poor planning skills coming to life; we never made it to Norway.

The next vet exposure came in the Czech Republic.  On leaving Poland, we had noticed a mass in Raj’s groin area.  Initially I assumed it was an abscess that needed draining, but when I was unable to preform that minor operation on my own (I have some experience in that particular area), we decided to have a vet examine the growth.  We were staying with a HelpX host at the time, and they were friendly with their veterinarian, who they invited to come visit and took a look at Raj at the same time.  The vet was very friendly, though not entirely comfortable with his English (it was actually very good, as we tried to reassure him).  His opinion was that it was possibly a hernia, my fear, or a retained testicle.  He advised us to keep an eye on it for the time being.

Our next stop was Austria, and we were in a vet’s office within the first week.  Jäger decided that he didn’t want the cats to be left out of this vet business I suppose, and he decided to get in on the action by jumping out of the caravan directly in to Moomkin’s hungry mouth.  Moomkin is decidedly NOT cat friendly, and I literally threw myself over the bottom half of the caravan door and onto him to free Jäger from his very dangerous jaws.  Jäger escaped to freedom and had no outward signs of damage, but he was clearly mentally shaken and over the course of the next hour, seemed to grow incredibly uncomfortable, with distinct swelling of his abdomen.  A quick Google search (always dangerous) brought to light the potential for severe internal bleeding even without external marks, and I immediately rushed him off to the nearest emergency vet.

A series of x-rays and over $150 dollars later, a still clearly painful Jäger was returned to me by a laughing veterinary nurse, who informed me that his discomfort and swollen belly were due entirely to the ENORMOUS amount of food he had obviously ingested that morning.  I spent the entire ride home threatening to feed my kitten to Moomkin after all for scaring me half to death and wasting our money just because he had decided to be a fat ass.  We saw the Austrian vet again not long after for a check up and ultrasound of Raj’s groin, and they jokingly asked if our kitten had survived his overeating episode.  They were also able to reassure us that Raj’s growth was not a hernia, as feared, but likely an infected haematoma.   We discussed surgery options and agreed to schedule it the week following.

Unfortunately, our time in Austria was, in a word, eventful, and we weren’t able to make it back to the vet’s there.  It would be another few weeks, in Croatia, where Raj would finally have his surgery.  The Croatian vet office was the first time that I truly felt the cultural differences come in to play.  We were not in a major city, or along the busy tourist coast, but buried deep in the mountains, in one of the poorest parts of the country.  The vet clinic was clearly more used to treating livestock then pets, though we were lucky to be seen by the vet that our hosts had recommended as the best for small animals.  She scheduled his surgery the next day, taking me at my word that the vet’s in Austria had ruled a hernia out.

Raj’s growth burst on the way to the vet’s the following day, covering my car with blood (gross), and leaving me feeling guilty and panicky for not having dealt with it sooner.  On our arrival, no less then four veterinarians came in to give opinions on Raj has he lay bleeding on the table.  They gave him two shots of anaesthetic as I was standing there, and when he was mostly asleep, ushered me out and told me to return four hours later.  I signed no paperwork approving surgery, they asked no questions about his medical history, and I don’t think they actually knew his name.  It was a very different experience to what it would have been in England.

Raj came out of the surgery fine.  They didn’t send the Little Man home with a cone, and since he’s a determined licker, we had to improvise with a box to keep him away from his surgical site.  We also had to return to the clinic every day for antibiotic shots, as pills weren’t available.  The vets were lovely, even if they were a bit less open about… well, anything actually.  To this day, I have no idea what the growth actually was or what may have caused it; they never debriefed us about anything, and only reassured Travis it wasn’t cancerous when he asked directly.  That was a bit disconcerting, but it was hard to complain about the other side of things, the cost… the total cost of the surgery and post-treatment came to under $100, and they generously waited until the first of the month for me to get paid to be able to afford it.  That’s right, they performed a surgery for foreign strangers, without ever taking any of my personal information, knowing in advance that they would have to wait nearly a week for payment.  How’s that for generous?

Our veterinary experiences in BiH have been the most culturally unique so far.  We walked in with Kova on our third day in country.  The receptionist called in the only fluently English speaking vet in the practice, which shocked me since he was clearly busy elsewhere and we didn’t have an appointment.  They gave us the works for Kova, which would have easily cost us over $300 back home.  They charged us 95 Bosnian marks (around $45), and when I was 5 marks short in cash, the attending veterinarian pulled the balance out of his own pocket and waved off my insistence I could run to an ATM.  When we returned with a swollen faced Kova a week later, they greeted us like old friends, treating both her and Wasi (he has a wart on his ear and needed some wormer), again without an appointment.  They then invited us for drinks, where we enjoyed homemade Rakija from one of the vet techs (who we now call Dr. Rakija), homemade cheese, and fascinating conversation.  Before we left, the vet gave me his private number and insisted we call him next time we were in town so that we could have a meal together as friends.  Drinking with the vets, now that’s something you don’t experience at home!

We will get to see our BiH vets sooner then anticipated tomorrow, and sadly not because we have free time for a meal.  Syn and Wasi have both spent the weekend running temperatures, eating only reluctantly, and clearly feeling under the weather.  Thanks to our preparations, we’ve had Carprofen (an NSAID) on hand to keep the fevers under control, but we’re pretty certain that they have both contracted a tick borne illness that will need treatment with antibiotics.  Despite our best efforts, regular tick treatments, and intense tick searches, the tick infestation in BiH is unlike anything I have ever seen before.  Travis once spent two hours pulling over 150 ticks off of Syn alone.  She and Wasi have been the ones that have spent the most time with me on the trail, so it makes sense they’re the ones that have gotten hit with whatever disease those nasty insects are carrying.

While I have been quietly freaking out all weekend with worry over my dogs, I’ve been surprised that my fear is no more than it would be in the same situation back home.  Despite the fact that the clinic here is in no way comparable in medical advances, equipment quality, etc, I feel confident that the vet knows what he’s doing and will give my dogs the best treatment possible to get them healthy again.  And while there is no doubt that dogs and cats here are seen more as working animals then pets, our conversations with this vet in particular have reassured me that to him, at least, my pets are worthy of the best treatment because animals have value regardless of their working status.

Animal lovers from countries where animals are kept solely as companions are often quick to judge other cultures for their treatment of animals as more practical parts of their daily existence.  I know that I was predisposed to assume that veterinary treatment would be somehow less, and that my animals would be valued differently because they served no “purpose.”  Our veterinary experiences in each of the counties we’ve visited have really opened my eyes to how important it is not to judge what you don’t know, and to be open to trusting even when things may not initially seem to be what you’re used to.  More importantly, they’ve shown me that animal lovers are all the same no matter where in the world they are, and that’s a really lovely thing to know.