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!

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Back to Church

I went to Church today.  I’ve stepped foot inside many churches and religious buildings over the years, but today is the first time I’ve went to an actual church service in who knows how long.  I’m not religious at all: I don’t believe in a higher being and often think religion is more trouble then its worth; sometimes I even think I’m a little anti-organizised religion, though I always think faith itself, regardless of in what or who, is a beautiful thing.  So I can’t really be sure what drove me to go other then the vague idea that church often means community, and that I am rather lonely these days.

Ironically, its a Roman Catholic Church here in Kupres, and since I was raised Catholic and attended private Catholic schools for my entire childhood, in some ways, I felt right at home.  Mind you, the service was in Croatian and I couldn’t understand a single word of it.  Plus there was the fact that its been so long since I’ve heard a service that I also couldn’t remember what the standard responses should have been in English either.  Nevertheless, it felt the same, if you know what I mean; a bit like muscle memory but of the brain.

Travis and I did attended a church wedding back in Denmark, and we were both really excited when we recognised the Our Father being said even though it was in Danish.  I spent this entire service waiting eagerly for the same thing to happen so I could pretend to participate, but either even the cadence of the prayer is too different for me to recognise in Croatian, or they didn’t say it so I was a bit disappointed.  I also didn’t recognise any of the songs, of which there were way more then I recall from childhood masses.  Nonetheless, I have forgotten how beautiful it is to hear the voices of the young and old alike raised in song together, and there were moments when I was nearly brought to tears by the sheer beauty of that.  I’ll probably return next Sunday just for the singing alone; thats the great thing about music, isn’t it?  You don’t have to speak the language or understand the words for it to touch your heart.

As much as I genuinely enjoyed the service, I was glad when it was over because that church was COLD.  I’m talking all coats on, hands in your pockets with the gloves still on them, breath in front of your face, glasses fogged up, cold.  On the way out, I spotted Petra and her family and went over to say hello.  They invited me to join them for coffee at one of the local spots, so it seems that Sunday brunch after mass is a universal thing.  I gratefully accepted their invite, as the thought of returning to the empty cabin and spending another day with my own thoughts wasn’t very appealing.

Petra’s family was warm and welcoming, even if most of them were too shy to attempt to use their English with me.  I don’t judge anyone for this as even when I was fluent in other languages I was always reluctant to speak with natives.  But I do wonder at it a bit, because honestly, their English is wonderful.  And even when it fails them a little bit, one of my favourite parts of talking with foreigners is seeing the truly amazing ways we manage to communicate both within and outside the language itself.  One of my favourite examples from this trip is from the Finnish girls who befriended us in Austria and often spoke of needing “hands clothes.”  Is that not the most perfect and creative way of describing gloves you’ve ever heard?

Eventually I knew I needed to get going because I was sure Wasi would be getting restless in the car.  I had brought him along with me as backup in case I lost my nerve, but am proud to say that I made it through both the Mass and the coffee on my own.  Little steps!

Jajce

I promised myself that I would do mini adventures every other day until Travis’ return, and so far, I’m sticking with it.  Today I had one of those “eyes bigger then your stomach” moments, and planned three towns when one was clearly more than enough.  Not to worry, the town I choose turned out to be nothing short of spectacular and now I have two more mini adventures to the other towns to look forward to!

First, I got the ideas for which places to visit in BiH by asking on my favourite travel FB group, Girls Love Travel.  I received loads of advice on places not to miss and I compiled them into a list that I am working my way through.  Jajce was suggested multiple times, and being only about 75 mins from Kupres, seemed like a good choice for today’s mini adventure.

Jajce is a “large” (for BiH) town situated between two major rivers, the Pliva River and the Vrbas River.  The rivers meet right at the foot of the town, where the Pliva tumbles in to the Vrbas creating one of the most stunning waterfalls I’ve ever seen, with the town as its backdrop.  It’s not often that you get to see a waterfall IN a town, and this town is literally brimming with them!  There are waterfalls welcoming you in, waterfalls bidding you farewell, and even more accompanying you on your stroll through the streets.  I was a rubbernecking pro as I drove around stopping at every turnout trying to get photos of as many as I could!

While I probably could have spent all day just waterfall watching, Jajce has more to offer.  A 14th century fortress still graces the top of the mountain, and makes for an incredible photo op.  You can walk up to the top for views of the whole town, but I had Wasi with me, and had to make the call that it might be a bit too many stairs for his ten month old hips (one of the realities of traveling with and working a still growing Assistance Dog in training).  Instead, Wasi and I went to visit Bear Tower (I couldn’t read the signs to figure out why its called that) and the catacombs.

I wasn’t actually expecting to be allowed in the catacombs with Wasi, since the sign clearly said no dogs and as I’ve mentioned before, Assistance dogs aren’t really a thing in BiH.  But the lady at the ticket stand was so nice, and there weren’t any other visitors, so she let me go on down.  This was Wasi’s very first trip underground, which can be very challenging for dogs; many underground tourist attractions throughout Europe are completely off limits to Assistance Dogs, even Guide Dogs, because many dogs find being underground so uncomfortable they can’t perform.  Wasi walked down the first flight of stairs and into the upper chambers without seeming to notice, but hesitated when I started down to the lower chamber.  Despite being fairly well lit, even I was pretty creeped out, and would have turned back if Wasi wasn’t willing to go any further.  Before I could turn around though, Wasi walked down the stairs and strolled past me.  Sometimes I think we are getting no where with his training, and then he does something like this and reminds me that just because he’s slower then Nefsi, doesn’t mean its not all getting through.

Wasi and I didn’t linger in the catacombs, but took a few photos and then hurried up only to be blinded the moment we stepped back outside.  The weather today was absolute autumn gold, with shining sun and cloudless sky and the last of the warm temperatures so I’ve been warned.  I took advantage by strolling along the town’s cobblestone streets and taking photos of everything from the ruins to the new mosque to (of course) more waterfalls.  Since I had Wasi, I decided to skip another solo meal (with some relief admittedly).  The entire adventure in town probably only lasted around two hours, but once I was back in the car, I knew I had expended all the energy I had for solo adventuring that day and opted to head back to Kupres instead of continuing to the next town on my list.  All in all though, I consider it another successful day of being on my own and not hiding out in the cabin, so definitely a win!

A Solo Thanksgiving

Well, for the first time in my thirty-one years, I am spending a Thanksgiving completely and totally alone.  I’ve spent many a holiday without family around, having lived so far away for so long, but this is the first time I haven’t had at least other American friends around to celebrate with as a make-shift family.  The people here don’t even know what Thanksgiving is, let alone want to celebrate with me.  Though Mate’s opinion of it when I tried to explain was that any holiday based on eating a lot of good food sounded like one worth celebrating.

I’m not going to lie and pretend that being alone today hasn’t been lonely.  My family and friends all around the world are celebrating together and I’m sitting in a really cold cabin (I haven’t figured out the whole lighting the fire thing yet), waiting for the water to boil so I can make macaroni and cheese, and having a very real (and very rare) case of American homesickness.  In any case, its time to be cliche and do the required “what I’m thankful for this year” list, so here goes:

  1. First, I’m thankful to be alive and that I am not still stuck in the bog I rode my horse into today.  That’s right, I took one of my three year old fillies, Rubi, out for a ride and managed to get us both stuck up to my waist in a very quick-sand like bog.  We were probably only stuck for all of 90 seconds, but getting free was a major ordeal for Rubi and took a lot out of both of us… definitely one of those moments where you’re thankful just to have survived.
  2. I’m thankful for the health of my menagerie.  This last week has been a real reminder of just how much I depend on my furry family to be there for me, and seeing Wasi and Syn so sick means that I’m extra appreciative for their recovery and the continued health of dogs and cats alike!
  3. I’m thankful for my amazing family, as always, and especially for their support and many “coming to the rescue” moments over the last four months.  I wish I was with them all now.
  4. I’m thankful for all of the incredible people that I have in my life.  From old friends who’ve put up with me since childhood, to my make-shift family back in England who have shown me what true friendship looks like, I don’t know what I would do without you all.  Moreover, I am so incredibly grateful to all the new friends I have made on this journey so far, people who have given me new perspectives, shared their cultures, embraced me even when I was a stranger, and who I will now be able to call friends for life.
  5. I’m incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to be on this journey, to have the adventure of a lifetime.  So many people would love the chance to travel like this and somehow here I am, living that dream.
  6. Finally, though I know I’ve done this in reverse order, the thing I am most thankful for this year is my cousin, Travis.  Ten months ago he literally came to my rescue because I couldn’t face my husband and the divorce alone.  Since then he has been my rock, my stability, my best friend.  He’s let me cry, let me vent, put up with my often irrational mood swings and bouts of depression, acted as my service human, given me space when I’ve needed it and a kick in the ass when it was called for.  He’s driven me crazy and let me drive him crazy, but never for a moment have I doubted his cousinly love.  Without him I don’t think I would have made it through the first six months in England after my husband abandoned me.  I definitely never would have made this trip.  So Travis, you’re what I’m most thankful for this year, have a lot of your dad’s rolls for me!

Obstacles to Exploring

I’m on day two of being alone, and I woke up this morning knowing that if I didn’t create a routine that would get me out of bed every day, I was liable to just sit around and sink in to a depression over the next two weeks.  This is one of the main reasons I didn’t opt to travel alone in the first place: I know I am susceptible to regular and often severe bouts of depression, and I find that having someone around to feel responsible to helps me fight them off.  Luckily, I still have the animals to care for, and am responsible for the daily upkeep and exercise of the horses here at the farm, so it should be fairly easy to keep myself on track.

One of the things I’ve promised myself that I will do at least every other day is leave the farm and go out exploring.  This is challenging for me, and not just for the usual reasons of having anxiety and such.  I also don’t have access to WiFi or phone service once I leave the farm, which means getting lost is a very real concern.  Additionally, Assistance Dogs aren’t really a thing here, definitely not outside the major cities, so that means if I want to go inside anywhere, I have to go without Wasi.  I’ve been getting really good at going in to stores and shops without a dog, but always with Travis, so this is going to be a really big push outside my safe zone.

Despite these concerns racing around my head, after I finished my morning chores on the farm, I set off determinedly to check out some of the things in the local area.  I visited the churches in Kupres and Tomislavgrad since I am surprisingly fascinated by churches for a non-religious person.  Part of the reason is the architecture and history of these places for sure, but I think another big factor is the fact that for whatever reason, churches always feel safe to enter without a dog.  Both churches were beautiful, and sadly, both are new.  The church in Kupres was destroyed not once, but twice during the war.  The fact that this history is so recent, literally within my own lifetime, was heart wrenching to think about.

After the churches, I attempted to visit the ancient tombs that are scattered all over this area of BiH.  In one of the tombs, a perfectly intact mummy and his shroud were recovered from 3000 B.C.!  I plan to visit the museum that houses these artefacts at a later date, but for today, I just wanted to wander over the hills that had once housed them.  Except I didn’t do my research very well, and I forgot that out here in the countryside, many of the would-be tourist sites are not very well marked.  I found the road sign indicating the turn off for the tombs, but despite nearly 40 mins of driving down an unpaved road, I’m not actually sure that I ever managed to see the tombs themselves.  There were some rocky hills that looked different from the rest of the landscape, so I snapped some photos of those in case they were it.  I’ll have to ask Mate or Marko where I went wrong…  this is me as a solo traveler in a nutshell.

I may not (or may, to be determined) have found the tombs, but I did visit quite a few cemeteries along my route.  Like the churches, these sites serve as really poignant reminders of how recent the tragedy of war is here.  Kurpes was a major battle site of the war because of its important mid-way location for communications through the mountains.  The remnants of war are still visible everywhere, from houses bearing bullet holes, buildings blown to pieces, signs warning of mines, and into the eyes of Marko, boss two, who served on the front lines and still clearly carries the weight of what he saw.  There are memorials everywhere and I stopped and took a moment at each and every one that I saw because I think we owe it to peace not to forget.

I ended my first day of solo exploring by forcing myself to stop at a local restaurant and have a meal all by myself… not even Wasi for company.  I went for comfort food, pizza and French fries, and tried not to notice how crowded the completely empty restaurant started to get as I sat there.  I’m not sure I can remember the last time I ate a meal in public alone, and I definitely don’t know the last time I did so without a dog at my feet.  I managed to keep the anxiety attack at bay by focusing on editing some of the photos I’d taken of the day and scrolling through Facebook.  By the time I made it home, I was feeling both relived and proud of myself.  I made it through the day intact, without succumbing to the fears or anxiety that were pressing in on all sides.  I even enjoyed myself, enough that I’m already looking forward to my next mini solo adventure.  This time I think I’ll try planning a little more thoroughly, so that I know for sure if I make it to the site I’m trying to reach!