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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DOG RESCUE: Gabrova

As most of our followers already know, we were only a few days free of Kova before our second rescue dog entered the picture. Upon arriving in Bulgaria and meeting our hostess Dee, it quickly became clear that we had one major thing in common: animals. Specifically, animal rescue. Less than a week after we arrived there, we were asked by Dee and her friend Krissy if we would be willing to step in and save a street dog that had been running around the village for a few weeks.

My instinct at the request was initially to say no. First of all, we’d already seen what having a seventh dog along was like with our travels, and it was exhausting. Though we hoped to stay in Bulgaria for a few months, I was concerned that if the host arrangement didn’t work out, we’d be stuck with another dog on the road. Second, the dog in question didn’t meet the criteria Travis and I had agreed to when we acknowledged we were willing to rescue animals on this trip; namely, she was not starving nor was she in what we would consider crisis since a couple locals were feeding her twice a day. So I was reluctant to say the least.

Two things convinced me to change my mind. The first was the news that the Kmet (the village mayor), who hates dogs, had decided the dog in question was a nuisance and had arranged to have her picked up by local animal control and transport her to the shelter. On the surface, this may seem like a positive option for a dog, it gets them off the streets at least. But animal shelters in Bulgaria aren’t like animal shelters elsewhere… the reality was that this was a death sentence for the dog. The second was the first picture of the dog I saw. It was, for a moment, like looking at a ghost.

Nearly a decade ago, I rescued a puppy in a national park in Kentucky. I named him Zilpo after the park we found him in. He was one of the best dogs I’ve ever had, and ultimately, he lived his life out with Travis’s family after I joined the Air Force. We lost Zilpo only a few months ago, far too early. When I saw this dog’s pictures, it was like looking in to Zilpo’s sweet face again: I couldn’t say no.

We went to pick her up on a Saturday night. She was waiting with Krissy in front of the apartment complex, and she came straight to me, shy but sweet. In the first glance, I once again balked… she was very clearly very pregnant. To be honest, in that moment I almost backed out. Seven dogs temporarily is one thing; but puppies? In my tiny caravan? And an intact female who would not be able to be spayed promptly with my intact Wasi who is quickly becoming very aware he still has his balls? It was a recipe for disaster. In the end though, it was the very fact that she was pregnant that swayed me to follow through: if the shelter option has been a likely death sentence before, it was a 100% certainty she, and her puppies, would be dead within the day if we sent her there now.

I named our new rescue Gabrova on the five minute ride back up the hill, for the region of Bulgaria we are in. I call her Gabbie. She spent the first night in the car since it was too dark to try a pack introduction. I barely slept that night, worrying she was too cold and too pregnant. The next morning I woke up, put her on a leash, and brought her in to the caravan. It was a risky introduction, completely unlike me. But some instinct told me that it would be okay with this dog.

And it was. Gabbie was the perfect mix of submissive and stand her own ground. My other dogs took to her like she’d always been a part of the pack. Only Wasi was initially a problem, because he fell head over heels and abused her constantly. She put him firmly in his place until he got his hormones under control. The other dogs barely seemed to notice she was there. Even Moomkin liked her straight off.

Over the next few weeks, Gabbie stole my heart. She is sweet, faithful, silly, and just plain wonderful. In all my years of animal rescue, only Syn has been a foster failure. I am very good at rehoming the animals I take on. With Gabbie, it was a daily struggle to even consider finding her a new home. She just… fit. So you can imagine my heart break when the perfect family came forward for her. I was torn completely in two. I didn’t need a seventh dog by any means, but I love Gabbie, fully and completely, in a way I rarely do even with my own dogs. It took all my common sense, and the fact that it truly is the absolutely perfect family to convince me to commit to letting her go.

Gabbie’s new family is waiting patiently for her in Scotland. They keep in touch and are already as in love with her as I am. I know she will be happy there and that I made the right decision. I’m trying to savour every moment I have with her now, since I know one day soon I will have to give her up. In the meantime, I’m not only getting to love Gabbie, but I’m also getting to love the six healthy puppies she gave birth to on the night of January 2, into the early hours of January 3. Sadly, I only had 48 hours with tiny puppy number seven, Zagora, who was just too small for this great big world… but at least I got that with her.

To bring this story full circle, one of Gabbie’s puppies will be returning back to the States with Travis to live with his family there… because I am 100% positive that Zilpo was born again in this litter, and we’re getting our very own version of A Dog’s Tale. It’s a fitting link in a rescue tale that almost didn’t happen because she didn’t “fit the criteria.” Gabbie brought us new life in more ways then one, we will always be thankful.

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 😂!

Kova’s New Family

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

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

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

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

DOG RESCUE: Kova

It’s probably unsurprising that animals not my own feature fairly prominently along my travel journey.  What is surprising is that it took me over three months in to the trip to add another member to the menagerie, especially after we lost Sami and, as Travis liked to remind me on a regular basis, our numbers had become uneven.  In fact, on the very same day that we would pick up our first rescue of the trip, we had barely managed to talk ourselves out of adding another bunny to the crew.  Has anyone ever seen a LionHead baby rabbit?  Then you know the strength of will it took to walk out of that pet store with nothing but the dog food and new mastiff collars we’d gone in for.  Ok, so no bunny.  But the temptation was there, which was probably a clue that my heart was feeling pretty vulnerable that day.

Before I get in to the specifics of our first rescue, its probably worth mentioning to other animal lovers that are looking to travel in the Balkans that the street dog “crisis” if you will, is very prominent here.  I have quite a few friends back in England with Romanian rescue dogs, and we were jokingly warned in advance by a Serbian friend that all the puppies milling around were going to spot us as suckers in seconds.  So we were prepared for what we’d see while here, and had hardened our hearts appropriately in anticipation.  For myself, I had drawn a line in the sand: I did not need, want, nor could I afford any additional animals.  Period.

Mostly, being prepared worked.  We cooed over the kittens at the rest stops in Croatia, but left them easily after admiring their ability to convince every driver that stopped for a bite.  We passed ragged looking mountain dogs in the hills and reminded ourselves that those dogs were likely actively working on guarding a flock just over the rise.  In the towns and cities, we watched packs of dogs work together to monitor territory and beg for scraps.  All in all, it is actually a fascinating part of our travel experience to see how these animals survive on their own.

Then, two weeks ago, we were driving up a mountain pass between Zenica and Bugojno, on a road called Kovacica.  It was early afternoon and we were making our way towards Kupres and the riding holiday ranch we would be volunteering at there.  As we entered one of the hairpin turns climbing up, a movement in brown caught our attention.  I turned my head and made eye contact with the saddest, skinniest, most pathetic looking dog I’d yet seen on our trip.  My heart simply stopped beating for a moment.  And then we were through the turn and the dog was behind us.  Travis and I went back and forth for a few moments, before he drew my attention to our petrol situation, with was fairly severe.  I subsided in to silence, reminding myself of my line in the sand.  As we neared a pull out area, before I’d even realised the words were thoughts in my head, I told Travis to turn around.

We named Kova after the road we found her on.  When we went back for her, she was sitting at the side of the road, waiting for us.  She came running at my first whistle.  She was covered in fleas and ticks of course, and had minor mange.  She was starving, and cold, and grateful.  We took her to the first veterinarian we found, got her treated for worms and parasites, gave her a microchip and a Rabies vaccination, and paid for her Passport.  Within three hours, Kova was entirely ready to be adopted out to a forever home.  I had readjusted my line in the sand: if an animal was clearly starving and in a condition where they would not survive the environment (as short coated Kova would not have survived a winter on the mountain), we could attempt to assist.  And if they proved as willing to be rescued as our little red haired girl, we would search for permanent homes for them with the help of our followers.

Kova has a home in Italy lined up with an American military family there.  Our network and a good friend made the connection possible within 24 hours of us picking her up.  While we wait to be able to transport her, we’re fattening her up and giving her lessons on what it means to be a house dog.  She’s a willing student if you ignore the fact that she’s constantly on the counters, in the trash, and begging at meal time… ok, so she has some things to learn still.

I’d be lying if I said this will be a one off thing.  We can’t rescue all the animals, but Kova’s reminded me that that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try when the timing is right and our heart tells us to stop.  I imagine they’ll be other rescues on this journey, and though we won’t go looking for them, we’ll be open to them if they come along.  This is one thing that I’m really, really good at; and one that has so many rewards for so little risk.  After all, what’s one more animal when you’ve already got a menagerie?