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!

Winter is Coming

Today has been an exciting day, for all the wrong reasons.  These sort of days are bound to happen on a trip as long as this one, but they sure do make us miss home sometimes.

The day started with the promise of foul weather incoming over the next few days.  This wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that Travis is leaving for the States tomorrow and flying out of Sarajevo, a three hour drive over mountains from Kupres.  The prospect of bad weather had us deciding that we had better make for Sarajevo a day early so there was no risk of Travis missing his flight.  This also meant a hotel for the night, situating the cats for a couple days on their own, and packing seven dogs in to a car that really are not keen to be crammed together for long lengths of time.  The cost of a hotel was my main concern, as my finances are strained well past the breaking point already; thank god for parents who were willing to lend a helping hand there.

On the way to Sarajevo, we made our scheduled stop in Bugojno to have Syn and Wasi seen by our vet.  Both dogs seemed stable this morning, but were clearly still not improving.  The vet diagnosed them both with Babesia, a dangerous tick borne illness that is prevalent and often fatal here in BiH.  As a precaution, he recommended treating all six of our dogs with Imizol to head it off in the others and hopefully get Syn and Wasi on the way to recovery.  Everyone but Syn reacted fine to the injection; she promptly vomited and has been going downhill ever since.  There’s nothing worse then being on the road with a sick dog, and its thousands of times worse when the thought is in the back of your head that the disease is often fatal.  However, Syn did eat a full dinner tonight, and seems to be enjoying the hotel digs (she and Wasi are even being featured on the hotel’s instagram account, check them out @hotelazizasarajevo), so we’re hoping the medication is starting to kick in.  A blood transfusion is the next step, and that’s a daunting undertaking no matter where you are, so I’m hoping hard it doesn’t come to that.

Following the vet visit, we headed to the auto shop to attempt to finally replace the battery in the Suby, which has been dying steadily since Austria.  My trusty Subaru Forester has been as amazing as anyone could ask a car to be over the last seven years.  I bought her in CA in 2012, brand new, the first vehicle I’d ever purchased.  Since then, she’s travelled not only through over 25 states with me, but also through nearly half the countries of Europe with more to come.  She’s slowing down though, and the battery isn’t the only thing that needs some help (aside from the battery, she needs a routine oil change and minor service, new brakes, and her fuel injectors are in rough shape).  We’re doing our best to get her taken care of as we can afford it.  Unfortunately, while attempting to purchase her a new battery, we discovered that there is another problem, one which we do not currently have an actual name for because the mechanic spoke no English and the auto parts clerk’s was limited to “the engine is broke.”

What that means is anyone’s guess, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of news we needed on a day when we’d already spent the little remaining savings I had left treating sickly dogs.  Worse, the mechanic refused to do any actual diagnostics because as he literally pointed out by tapping the Subaru symbol and throwing up his hands, they don’t stock parts for Suby’s here.  Another blow on an already shitty day.  Since we’re in Sarajevo and its a major city, I’m going to try to find an auto shop here that may be able to at least order the parts in, but I’ll admit that this is an area where I always feel like a fish out of water.  One of the main reasons that I opted to travel Europe in the company of my cousin was that I knew there was the chance of running in to car issues, and I wanted someone around that had some idea of what they might be talking about.  The prospect of having to deal with this alone after Travis leaves tomorrow, in a country with no Subaru dealership, and with a notable language barrier not to mention my own lack of auto knowledge has me bordering on an anxiety attack already and its still a whole sleep away.

I’m trying to remind myself that this is the sort of thing that I need to learn to face and deal with in order to grow in to the complete person I want to be.  Overcoming adversity, whether its sick dogs or a car whose “engine in broke,” is half the point of this entire trip in the first place.  But I freely admit to being nervous, even downright scared.  As of tomorrow, I’ll be entirely on my own (if I don’t count the furry crew) for the very first time since I was married over five years ago…  and it seems like the problems are piling up as fast as the snow I can smell in the air.  Winter is coming, and I’m not at all sure that I’m ready to face it.  But I guess I have to be don’t I?

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LOOKING BACK: Sick as a Dog

Warning: Longer post!

One of the most stressful parts of travelling with pets is the fear of what will happen if one (or all) of them get sick, injured, or otherwise in to the sort of trouble that animals have a knack for getting in to.  With twelve in home pets and seven horses, vet visits have always been a regular part of my life, but the worry about them increases tenfold when you’re living on the road in unfamiliar countries.  Cultural differences can impact everything from office hours, emergency access, medication types, surgical standards, and my worst fear, the emotional value of a pet.  This weekend we’ve been dealing with two dogs who have picked up what are likely tick borne illnesses, and its had me reflecting on the veterinary experiences we’ve had on this trip so far (of which there have been quite a few).

First, for those considering travel with pets, its important to mention that we did a whole lot of pre-trip preparation before embarking on this journey.  All twelve of our animals were Passported, wormed, vaccinated, and cleared by a veterinarian for travel.  We had to research every single country that we were considering visiting to ensure that they would meet import requirements no matter what border we crossed.  Additionally, because half of our dogs have pre-existing conditions, we stocked up on a variety of prescription pain medications to be sure we could keep them comfortable for the duration of the trip.  And of course, there’s the need to be prepared for fleas, ticks, and other parasites.  The total preparation costs for the animals alone exceeded $2,500… I’m still paying some of it off!

We encountered our first vet fairly early in to our journey.  Following Denmark, our plan was to proceed to Norway before visiting the other Scandinavian countries.  Both Norway and Finland (like the United Kingdom), require that dogs have a tapeworm treatment 24 hours prior to entering the country.  So our first visit to a vet was to fulfil this requirement.  The vet in Denmark was equivalent to one we would see in England, most especially in terms of cost.  It cost around $300, and ultimately would turn out to have been a complete waste of money…  this was the first instance of my poor planning skills coming to life; we never made it to Norway.

The next vet exposure came in the Czech Republic.  On leaving Poland, we had noticed a mass in Raj’s groin area.  Initially I assumed it was an abscess that needed draining, but when I was unable to preform that minor operation on my own (I have some experience in that particular area), we decided to have a vet examine the growth.  We were staying with a HelpX host at the time, and they were friendly with their veterinarian, who they invited to come visit and took a look at Raj at the same time.  The vet was very friendly, though not entirely comfortable with his English (it was actually very good, as we tried to reassure him).  His opinion was that it was possibly a hernia, my fear, or a retained testicle.  He advised us to keep an eye on it for the time being.

Our next stop was Austria, and we were in a vet’s office within the first week.  Jäger decided that he didn’t want the cats to be left out of this vet business I suppose, and he decided to get in on the action by jumping out of the caravan directly in to Moomkin’s hungry mouth.  Moomkin is decidedly NOT cat friendly, and I literally threw myself over the bottom half of the caravan door and onto him to free Jäger from his very dangerous jaws.  Jäger escaped to freedom and had no outward signs of damage, but he was clearly mentally shaken and over the course of the next hour, seemed to grow incredibly uncomfortable, with distinct swelling of his abdomen.  A quick Google search (always dangerous) brought to light the potential for severe internal bleeding even without external marks, and I immediately rushed him off to the nearest emergency vet.

A series of x-rays and over $150 dollars later, a still clearly painful Jäger was returned to me by a laughing veterinary nurse, who informed me that his discomfort and swollen belly were due entirely to the ENORMOUS amount of food he had obviously ingested that morning.  I spent the entire ride home threatening to feed my kitten to Moomkin after all for scaring me half to death and wasting our money just because he had decided to be a fat ass.  We saw the Austrian vet again not long after for a check up and ultrasound of Raj’s groin, and they jokingly asked if our kitten had survived his overeating episode.  They were also able to reassure us that Raj’s growth was not a hernia, as feared, but likely an infected haematoma.   We discussed surgery options and agreed to schedule it the week following.

Unfortunately, our time in Austria was, in a word, eventful, and we weren’t able to make it back to the vet’s there.  It would be another few weeks, in Croatia, where Raj would finally have his surgery.  The Croatian vet office was the first time that I truly felt the cultural differences come in to play.  We were not in a major city, or along the busy tourist coast, but buried deep in the mountains, in one of the poorest parts of the country.  The vet clinic was clearly more used to treating livestock then pets, though we were lucky to be seen by the vet that our hosts had recommended as the best for small animals.  She scheduled his surgery the next day, taking me at my word that the vet’s in Austria had ruled a hernia out.

Raj’s growth burst on the way to the vet’s the following day, covering my car with blood (gross), and leaving me feeling guilty and panicky for not having dealt with it sooner.  On our arrival, no less then four veterinarians came in to give opinions on Raj has he lay bleeding on the table.  They gave him two shots of anaesthetic as I was standing there, and when he was mostly asleep, ushered me out and told me to return four hours later.  I signed no paperwork approving surgery, they asked no questions about his medical history, and I don’t think they actually knew his name.  It was a very different experience to what it would have been in England.

Raj came out of the surgery fine.  They didn’t send the Little Man home with a cone, and since he’s a determined licker, we had to improvise with a box to keep him away from his surgical site.  We also had to return to the clinic every day for antibiotic shots, as pills weren’t available.  The vets were lovely, even if they were a bit less open about… well, anything actually.  To this day, I have no idea what the growth actually was or what may have caused it; they never debriefed us about anything, and only reassured Travis it wasn’t cancerous when he asked directly.  That was a bit disconcerting, but it was hard to complain about the other side of things, the cost… the total cost of the surgery and post-treatment came to under $100, and they generously waited until the first of the month for me to get paid to be able to afford it.  That’s right, they performed a surgery for foreign strangers, without ever taking any of my personal information, knowing in advance that they would have to wait nearly a week for payment.  How’s that for generous?

Our veterinary experiences in BiH have been the most culturally unique so far.  We walked in with Kova on our third day in country.  The receptionist called in the only fluently English speaking vet in the practice, which shocked me since he was clearly busy elsewhere and we didn’t have an appointment.  They gave us the works for Kova, which would have easily cost us over $300 back home.  They charged us 95 Bosnian marks (around $45), and when I was 5 marks short in cash, the attending veterinarian pulled the balance out of his own pocket and waved off my insistence I could run to an ATM.  When we returned with a swollen faced Kova a week later, they greeted us like old friends, treating both her and Wasi (he has a wart on his ear and needed some wormer), again without an appointment.  They then invited us for drinks, where we enjoyed homemade Rakija from one of the vet techs (who we now call Dr. Rakija), homemade cheese, and fascinating conversation.  Before we left, the vet gave me his private number and insisted we call him next time we were in town so that we could have a meal together as friends.  Drinking with the vets, now that’s something you don’t experience at home!

We will get to see our BiH vets sooner then anticipated tomorrow, and sadly not because we have free time for a meal.  Syn and Wasi have both spent the weekend running temperatures, eating only reluctantly, and clearly feeling under the weather.  Thanks to our preparations, we’ve had Carprofen (an NSAID) on hand to keep the fevers under control, but we’re pretty certain that they have both contracted a tick borne illness that will need treatment with antibiotics.  Despite our best efforts, regular tick treatments, and intense tick searches, the tick infestation in BiH is unlike anything I have ever seen before.  Travis once spent two hours pulling over 150 ticks off of Syn alone.  She and Wasi have been the ones that have spent the most time with me on the trail, so it makes sense they’re the ones that have gotten hit with whatever disease those nasty insects are carrying.

While I have been quietly freaking out all weekend with worry over my dogs, I’ve been surprised that my fear is no more than it would be in the same situation back home.  Despite the fact that the clinic here is in no way comparable in medical advances, equipment quality, etc, I feel confident that the vet knows what he’s doing and will give my dogs the best treatment possible to get them healthy again.  And while there is no doubt that dogs and cats here are seen more as working animals then pets, our conversations with this vet in particular have reassured me that to him, at least, my pets are worthy of the best treatment because animals have value regardless of their working status.

Animal lovers from countries where animals are kept solely as companions are often quick to judge other cultures for their treatment of animals as more practical parts of their daily existence.  I know that I was predisposed to assume that veterinary treatment would be somehow less, and that my animals would be valued differently because they served no “purpose.”  Our veterinary experiences in each of the counties we’ve visited have really opened my eyes to how important it is not to judge what you don’t know, and to be open to trusting even when things may not initially seem to be what you’re used to.  More importantly, they’ve shown me that animal lovers are all the same no matter where in the world they are, and that’s a really lovely thing to know.