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!

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.

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THE PEOPLE WE MEET: Petra & Anamarija

I recently watched Into The Wild for the first time, a movie I found somewhat difficult to like.  However, the lesson of the story, essentially that people need people, struck a heavy chord.  No matter how stunning the architecture, how beautiful the views, how rich the culture or intriguing the history, nothing compares to the memories we’ve made with the people we’ve met along this journey.  Travel without people, without connections and relationships, is lacking.  Our travels have not been lacking.

On Saturdays, two of the local girls from Kupres come to the holiday farm to ride some of the horses and, in their own words, get a break from school and home and take in some good old fashioned horse therapy.  I’m fortunate that the girls are eager to show the newbie a good time, and are happy to take me on some of the longer, more intense trails that I miss out on riding on my own every day.  Today was the first time that I was able to ride with both girls together, and they definitely took me for the ride of a lifetime, and not only because of the stunning scenery and the pure thrill of a ride through this countryside.

Petra is 17 years old and has one more year left in high school before she heads off to university.  From her description, the school system here in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) sounds pretty similar to what I’m used to in the States.  She isn’t sure what she wants to study in college yet, but continuing her education seems to be a given: “There is nothing I can do with just this schooling.”  On the trail, she’s a source of interesting information I’ve never heard before.  She introduces me to berries that are edible and instructs me to sort of roll them around in my mouth to fight off thirst.  If ingested, these berries are a great way to clear out the system.  Her English is excellent (both girls’ is) but she asks about what we call pine cones, and then tells me that their presence indicates how fresh and clean the air is.  I’m fascinated by how much she knows about her environment, this is not an area where I am very knowledgeable.

Anamarija is 15, though you wouldn’t guess it.  She wants to move to America one day; she isn’t sure where yet, anywhere will do.  She’s almost as obsessed with The Lord of the Rings as Travis is, and after our ride, I make the mistake of getting those two on that topic (don’t get me wrong, I love LOTR, but since Travis has watched all million of the movies no less then 100 times since moving to England ten months ago, I might be slightly soured on the them for the moment).  Anamarija leads most of our ride, and she’s a wonderful guide.  She also rides at a riding club where she does some show jumping, and when I express a longing to be able to jump again, she agrees to take me along with her next time she goes!

Both girls are essentially self taught equestrians, and incredibly impressive ones at that.  They’ve been a part of the team at the holiday ranch for almost ten years (more then half their lives), and have not only watched it grow in to the success it is now, but have played an integral part in making it so successful.  The girls work here full time during the summer holidays, guiding trails and interacting with guests.  They’ve been on board for the breeding and breaking of almost all of the current riding string, and the horses are absolutely a credit to their knowledge, ability, and pure skill.  I spend hours listening to them tell me about the horses I’m now riding, about what they were like as babies, cooing at foal photos and admiring both of their photography skills.

These two girls may be young, but they have already accomplished so much that they can be proud of, and I’m incredibly impressed.  With their passion for horses (and all animals… they’ve insisted on meeting, and loving on, all twelve of mine too) and their dedication to a work they love, they remind me of myself at that age.  Its a bittersweet reminder, perhaps one I needed but didn’t know I was looking for.  So often I boil my life down to the first twelve years of my adulthood, which have been strewn with considerably more trauma, failures, and disappointments then they have with passion, pride, or success.  Spending the day with these two girls, I remembered the girl that I used to be, the one who loved horses, who knew exactly who she wanted to be when she grew up and what she wanted to do.  They reminded me that my foundation in life isn’t the last twelve years, but the eighteen years that came before that, and that I had a childhood that was full of love, family, passion, clarity, pride, and dreams.  In making me remember some of the best moments of my past, they gave me an unexpected vision for my future.  I’m grateful to them.

As a side note, we had a proper gallop through the mountainside forest today, and as I was flying along, dodging trees, bending around turns in the trail, and letting my spirit soar with the sound of hoofbeats, a scene flashed in to my head.  You know the one, where Arwen is riding with Frodo through the forest to escape the wraiths?  Yeah, we were doing exactly that… I got to have my very own LOTR moment, and it was seriously awesome.