THE PEOPLE WE MEET: Djordje and the Pig

When we were in Austria, we worked with a number of people, very few of them actually Austrians. Aside from the Finnish girls who we befriended immediately, we became friends with one of the other guys working there, Djordje from Serbia. We didn’t have much time to get to know him, as his time at the farm ended only days after ours started, but we liked him instantly and he promised to give us advice down the road when we were traversing through his home country.

Fast forward over three months and here we are in Serbia. Djordje has been in touch as we’ve drawn ever nearer, and even sent us a complete itinerary of things not to miss here. By pure luck, it turned out that Djordje would actually be in Serbia around the same time we were driving through (he’s currently working in Holland with his girlfriend, Annika, one of our Finnish friends). We made tentative plans to try and meet up, and low and behold, as we sat down yesterday for dinner at a McDonalds rest stop, Djordje messaged to say that we were a mere 15 minutes from his hometown. Thrilled to be able to make the meet up work, we arranged to meet just off the highway and join him for a drink.

One of the things we’ve really loved about the Balkan countries so far is how unbelievably warm and welcoming the people are here. It’s not like this in the States, England, or the rest of Western Europe. Here, it’s not just good manners, but genuine joy that these people feel welcoming strangers in to their midst. And Serbia is the same. Djordje’s family not only welcomed us with warm smiles, they let us use their shower, insisted on feeding us a home cooked meal, and offered us both beds inside for the night (I opted to stay with the dogs in the caravan cause I really can’t sleep without them, but Travis was thrilled to take advantage of a night out of the drivers seat).

In the morning, Djordje went to the bakery with Travis and brought back a late breakfast of traditional items. We spent the day relaxing in the house watching Animal Planet (I was shocked to see so many American TV channels here). We were originally planning to head onwards to Bulgaria today, but Djordje wanted to introduce us to his maternal grandmother (we’re staying with the paternal one; she’s head over heels in love with Travis). So we extended our stay another night and how glad we are we did.

Djordje’s family has pigs (the babies piglets are so stinking cute!) including the biggest sow I’ve ever seen in my life. This sow needed to be moved to his uncle’s farm as she will soon be having another litter of piglets and needs more room. A few days prior to our arrival, they had attempted this transport for the first time, and 100 metres in to the drive, the pig had jumped out of the horse trailer she was travelling in… which they didn’t discover until they’d arrived at his uncle’s farm. This was a shocking feat, as even a horse would struggle to make that leap, let alone a 300 kg pig! This time, they were prepared to prevent any escapes. Unfortunately, the sow seemed less then impressed with her last trip, and point blank refused to get in the trailer. No amount of coaxing, bribery with food, or pure pushing would budge her up that ramp. After 45 minutes, where I was impressed to see the genuine love they had of this animal who was clearly trying everyone’s patience, they managed to convince her to go in by putting one of her piglets in there. Djordje’s brother was so impressed by the little piglets quick accomplishment of the mission that he insisted I take photos of the little miracle worker. No hardship, the piglet was adorable!

The sow made the trip without incident this time, and we were introduced to an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, a grandfather in law, and a friend while enjoying coffee and rakia at the farm. From there we went to Djordje’s grandmother’s house, where we met another uncle (twin to the first) and had a home cooked Serbian meal. His grandmother’s stuffed paprika peppers were the best thing I’ve eaten on this trip hands down.

In 24 hours, we’ve met half of Djordje’s family and been made to feel like honoured guests… there’s few places where such an overwhelming welcome would be extended to strangers that Djordje literally knew for less then four days before we parted ways. This is why we travel, because such amazing experiences exist, with amazing people that we would never meet otherwise. Serbia will long remain one of our most treasured stops of this journey.

Kova’s New Family

It’s a weekend of BiH goodbyes it seems; first to Kupres yesterday, and today to our Bosnian rescue dog, Kova. Goodbyes of all kinds are an unavoidable part of travelling, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

Kova’s new family are Jo and Austin and their cat Ruma. They’re a young American military family stationed in Italy, and they drove to Croatia today to pick up our little princess. I, of course, already really liked Jo after all of our chatting while waiting to hand her off, but I was pleased to like her and Austin just as much in person. They are going to give Kova the wonderful life she deserves, and you can’t hope for anything more then that when you rescue and rehome an animal.

I am going to miss Kova, very much even if she was sometimes a total pain in the bum. I’ll miss the way she curled up in the crook of my legs to sleep at night, and how she always greeted me with a whole body wag. I’ll miss her complete and utter sweetness, the shining goodness that some dogs have and is always more amazing when they have survived what she has survived. I’ll miss how she befriended Wasi and bossed him around even though he’s three times her size (probably more). I’ll really miss how cute and pleased with herself she got when she caught a sent and she alerted for me so I knew how good she’d done. I won’t miss her counter surfing or trash can diving, and I definitely won’t miss chasing her all over the streets of Sarajevo. But those were small prices to pay for getting to love and be loved by such an incredible animal for the last five weeks.

Once again, we picked up an animal who seemed to need rescuing, but who in reality, rescued us. Over the last five weeks she has been a welcome distraction from the emotional hardships I’ve been dealing with, and a constant reminder that life could certainly be worse. Like animals often do, she showed me that the only things that really matter in life are love and time… if she could still be our sweet Kova after nearly dying on the streets, then I can still be a decent person whatever life throws at me. That’s the beauty of animals, they force you took simplify life down to what really matters. Kova simplified everything down to love, because that’s all she wanted, to be loved (okay, and fed). I can’t wait to see her again someday, when she’s fully healthy and has embraced life with her new family. It’s the very best reward there is.

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.