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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Happy New Year

I know I’m late and that I’ve been absent for a few weeks. Suffice to say, when I can’t get my happy pills, just waking up in the morning and dealing with my dogs tends to be all I can handle in a day. That and the fact that my thoughts always turn rather morose during those withdrawal episodes kept me from wanting to write and bring everyone down with me. But I’m happy to report that good old Bulgaria has an unlimited supply of Zoloft and I have stocked up for the foreseeable future and after about a week back on them, I’m feeling much more myself again!

The last few weeks have been mostly quiet to be honest, so I haven’t missed much. We’re nicely settled in to our routine here in Gabrovo, though admittedly that routine has including a rather hermit-like existence for myself as I’ve been on puppy watch! I’ll go in to more details on her own post, but suffice to say that we have our second rescue dog of the trip, along with the seven adorable puppies she gave birth to yesterday. I know, what in the hell were we thinking. Stay tuned!

Our holidays here in Bulgaria were wonderful, aided by the fact that our hostess has already become more family then friend. We were included on all the festivities, and they even bought us some Christmas gifts. I managed to watch White Christmas on Christmas Eve, my personal tradition, and made everyone some American chocolate chip cookies.

Christmas morning Travis whipped up some an awesome American breakfast (we shared lots of home with our friends this holiday!) of pancakes, eggs, and bacon and of course, mimosas! I engaged in a game of monopoly with Sky, which I was obviously winning before we gave up. The kids were thrilled with their presents and I was so touched when we got ours. We also spent lots of time FaceTiming back with our own families back home, and I admit to more then a touch of homesickness.

The week between Christmas and New Years was marked by warmer temperatures and mostly by me complaining about the overwhelming amount of mud in the caravan. I can deal with a fairly high degree of mess/dirt, obviously, or I wouldn’t be able to travel like this with my animals, but even I have my limits. Mud, especially of this heavy, clay variety that sticks to everything and doesn’t easily brush or vacuum off is enough to make me break out into a full blown panic attack, which I did multiple times. Thankfully, Nefsi may be retired from public access work but he’s still on point at home and he was able to bring me around before I lost my mind. Wasi is doing his best but his idea of disruption is currently to launch himself in to my arms and slather me with slobber… a would be effective tactic except I hate dog kisses and it makes me even more strung out. We’re working on it, he will get there.

For New Years, Dee and I struggled to stay awake until midnight and ended up cuddled up in her bed with six dogs and who knows how many cats about two hours out. However, thanks to Wasi’s insistence that he could also fit (he couldn’t) and his repeated attempts to do so (I still have the bruises), we weren’t able to succumb to sleep before the year changed. We rang it in with sparkles and lots of noise and then hightailed it to bed.

Now we’re a few days in to 2019 and I’m taking a moment to look back over the last year. It’s been a long one, with some incredible highs and some seriously low lows. I want to say the ups outweighed the downs but honestly, I think it probably came out pretty even. All things considered, that’s better then expected so I’ll take it. I do know that I’ve had one incredible experience after another this year, from filling a lifelong dream of riding racehorses in Newmarket, England to taking the leap and embarking on this insane tour of Europe with my furry family in tow. No one can say that I’ve let PTSD take life away from me, that’s for sure, and since that’s my daily goal, I’m satisfied. This coming year I’m hoping to find a bit of the opposite of what I found this year: less questions and more answers, less drama and more peace, less restlessness and more stability… most of all, though, what I’d like to find in 2019 is a home to call my own, where I can reunite my horses, safely house my dogs and cats, and never have to worry about losing it all again. So here’s to that!

P.S. I also want a really good vacuum this year… my life in the caravan would be so different with a really good vacuum ūüėā!

Sunrise In Her Eye

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

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!

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!