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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Lighting the Fire

I lit my first fire today.  That may seem like a small thing, but for me, it turned out to be a rather monumental occasion.  I’ve never lit a fire before, like ever in my whole life.  I’ve been avoiding trying since Travis left, I thought because I was afraid of burning the cabin down.  But the temperatures are dropping, and its raining on top of that, and I really hate being wet and cold, so I knelt down in front of the fireplace and got to work.  I think I might have avoided it for longer if I knew what was coming.

Travis taught me how to build the little wood teepee, make space for the white accelerant block thingie, open the little drawer underneath for air flow and how to wait until those pieces caught before adding one of the bigger pieces of wood.  So I did all those things, crouching there shivering and hoping things would go smoothly.  Everything went along fine until I added the big piece that would actually create some heat… then things just sort of died out.  So I started the whole process over again, trying to remember if I’d forgotten anything, and wishing fervently that someone was there to help.  It was when my consciousness caught up with my wandering mind that things started to go really down hill.  Because I realised I wasn’t wishing for an faceless helping hand, or even my cousins familiar face… I was wishing for a man I’ve spent this entire trip trying to forget, and god that was galling.

I froze there, crouched on that hearth and tried to tell myself it made perfect sense I’d be wishing for the firefighter I married while I was trying to light a fire.  No big deal.  But it was a big deal, a betrayal of myself by myself, and in the moments that followed I stopped shaking from cold and started shaking in anger.  I started prodding the fire with a kind of pathetic desperation, as if getting it to stay lit would release me from the heartache that was threatening to overwhelm me, but it was too late, the thought, and the emotions it brought with it, had already taken root.

I’d like to be able to say that I got that fire lit and burned my ex-husband in effigy on my first successful fire.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead I spent the next thirty minutes lost in a smoky haze of painful memories and seething emotion.  I wanted to be angry with him, with the man who had deserted me, a man who cheated on me, stolen my best friend, lied to me, left me homeless and in tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt knowing that I was in no position to find permanent housing or a real job.  I wanted to feel hatred towards this man who hadn’t been able to love me, who hadn’t even tried to love me, who had emotionally abandoned me when I came forward about my rape, who had degraded me for having PTSD and never once sought to understand the depression and anxiety that plagued me.  Most of all I wanted to stop feeling anything, anything at all, for the coward who broke my heart.

But though I tried to concentrate on all these perfectly valid and anger inducing attributes of this man I’d been married to, it wasn’t anger I felt as I stared in to those sputtering flames, it was grief.  Still, after all this time, I was grieving the loss of love.  Because still, after all this time and despite all those disappointments and failures and just general shitty husbandness on his part, the emotion that I feel most strongly when I think of him is love.  I stopped prodding the wood and sank down fully in front of the fireplace.  This is why I had avoided building the fire, why I haven’t wanted to be alone, why despite the wonders of this trip I still find myself on the verge of tears more often then not.

I’m so tired of feeling this way.  I wake up every morning with him in my head, and go to sleep every night wondering how he is (even though I know perfectly well how happy he and I imagine soon to be wife number four are).  I came on this trip wanting to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those “empty shell people” they talk about in my favourite movie, Under the Tuscan Sun.  I’m no chicken shit after all.  I took my homelessness and debt and crappy job prospects and PTSD addled brain and dragged them on the adventure of a lifetime… what more can I do?  Right?

So why do I still feel like I’m the one who is a coward?  Why is my heart still aching for a man that didn’t love me, and couldn’t wait around long enough to let me heal and start to become the woman I wanted to be again?  After everything I’ve done the last four months, why am I still afraid to light the fire?  And how much longer will it be until I’m not?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I didn’t find them sitting there staring into the fireplace.  Maybe that’s because I’m asking the wrong questions, I don’t know.  What I do know is that as I sat there, wishing I could stop wishing for what I know can never be, I realised that I wasn’t staring in to smouldering ashes anymore… there were flames… the fire was burning.

And so, I lit my very first fire today, all by myself.  And maybe when I do it tomorrow, I’ll wish for that firefighter a little less, and the day after that, even less, until one day I won’t have to wish for him anymore at all because I’ll know I can light the fire all on my own.

 

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!

First Day On My Own

This morning I said goodbye to Travis for the next two weeks. We did a little high five and a casual “love ya, see ya soon” type deal since I’m not real big on hugs, even with family.  A cab came to pick him up because it was less hassle then forcing the dogs back in the car again, plus it meant I could sleep in a couple more hours and drag out every lovely moment of our first hotel experience (which I most definitely did).  It took me a few moments to get back to sleep because I was so busy listening to the call to prayers echoing throughout the city from all the mosques…  it was my first time hearing these and I could have listened forever, to say it brought peace to my nervous heart is an understatement.

When I did finally roll out of bed just before eight (since I’m usually up with the dogs and horses by six-thirty, this was sleeping in for me), I was greeted by pouring, cold rain.  It put a huge damper on my plans of exploring the city before heading back to Kupres.  I tried to while away some time potty breaking the dogs, taking full advantage of the free breakfast provided by the hotel, and stretching out my shower with its endless amounts of hot water, but in the end, I had to give in that today wasn’t going to be one for exploring.  So I got the pack resettled in the car and headed out of town.

I cried the whole first hour of the drive.  I am so nervous about being alone for the next two weeks.  The weight of it all hit me as I left the city and I thought about everything I’d suddenly be responsible for: having to take care of all the animals without someone there to back me up, figuring out how to make a fire so I can heat the cabin (Travis showed me but I wasn’t real good at it), and most of all, dealing with the two bosses on the farm myself (both of whom are absolutely wonderful and both of whom separately assured Travis they’d take good care of me… and both of whom are men, so even though I absolutely trust them and believe I am 100% safe here, this is a huge challenge for me).  I want to believe I’m a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need to depend on anyone, but lets face it, I’ve managed to avoid being alone with unnerving success since my divorce, and the idea of being alone in a foreign country has every cell in my body saying “what the hell are you thinking?”

I made the drive back to Kupres fine; the dogs were thrilled to be back.  I spent the afternoon trying to relax with a Harry Potter book (this is my second time through the series on this trip, Travis is on his fourth!).  During evening stables, Mate (boss one) came down to help me bring the horses in.  He asked how I was feeling about being there, reminded me that he, Marko, and both the girls are only a phone call away, and we made tentative plans to go visit the wild horses (so excited!) this weekend.  It was kind of him, and reassuring to know that they were all looking out for me.  Afterwards, I watched one of the prettiest sunsets I’ve seen since being here, and I finally started to feel my anxiety subside.  I can do this, I’m going to be okay.  Only 13 days left to get through!