Being truly, madly and passionately in Love with the Earth takes a bold and beautiful soul.
It was an idea. That was all. Why not? Everyone else was doing it. Perhaps that was good enough reason not to. But Climate Change was kicking in big time. How could I travel and still step lightly on the Planet?
If you’re looking for really authentic travel experiences, make friends. There are several ways to approach travel and maybe you’ll try all at different times, depending on the season, how far your finances are stretching, if you want to be in the city or deep in the countryside and what sort of social life you want.
I want to put in a good word for house-sitting. I’ve been lucky and had a few by word of mouth, the friends’ network. A month was ideal, enough time to get to know the locals, explore the nearby villages and do some long walks, usually with a dog attached or leaping through the undergrowth to chase a deer or wild-pig.
There’s house-sitting sites too. Google House-sitting and you’ll find a few. Like WorkAway, there’s a joining fee but they seem to be well regulated.
You need to be self-contained and obviously, a good level of responsibility is a plus when someone leaves you with their animals, garden and worldy possession. What you get is usually a gorgeous house to stay in rent-free, some instant pets and often fresh garden produce. I’ve managed chickens, turkeys, geese, cats and dogs, weeded and watered gardens and cleaned a swimming pool (my least favourite thing: add chlorine, pump won’t work, scoop up dead bodies).
One gig was an offer from a woman who picked me up when I was hitching in Spain. ‘Oh, so you do house-sitting,’ she said. ‘I’m off to Thailand for a month, would you like to look after my house?’ So it goes, you never know what opportunities come when you’re open to them.
I do. Especially if it’s highly nutritious and comes for free.
It’s part of the beauty of travelling to wild places… the hunt and the gathering of berries, nuts and fungi.
Follow the fruits of the season. Cherries, mulberries, blackberries and plums, figs then walnuts and almonds. It’s not an exhaustive list and there’s a whole range of plants as well. (List to follow on my next post)
And then there’s fungi…
Take a guide book and double check with an app or a pro local with experience in mushrooms and discover the delicious options. The gorgeous orange ones I photographed are called Lactarius deliciosus or Saffron MilkCap and they are truly divine cooked with garlic.
And I want to add that making japatis, unleavened bread made from wholemeal flour and water and cooked on a campfire, is not only super cheap but also a great staple that goes with cooked food or salads. While technically not wild food it’s an ancient art that’s worth rediscovering.
I return from walking the dogs (I’m house/dog sitting again) feeling like a fish in an over-heated pond.
It’s 11 am and there’s a bag hanging from the door handle. While the dogs run for the water bowl, I discover a gift of sweet plums.
At 12, the waft of cologne announces an elderly gentleman from the village. I invite the mystery bearer of gifts inside and talk in broken down Spanish. When a wheel falls off I open the translator but he’s no mechanic. He’s a musician, a poet, and takes paper in hand. Ciruelo: para comerlos 1. lavar las y la piel setira con el hueso.
It’s 2 pm and he’s wearing a freshly-washed shirt. He places almonds on the table. ‘Son de mi arbol’ he announces showing a good set of teeth. He mimes that they are for eating, that I need to crack the hard shells. I show him my hammer before he leaves.
By 3pm I’m thinking about lunch, just like most of the Spanish population, but I’m wilting. Perhaps I’ll eat the plums. ‘Henne?’ comes the version of my name in castellano from beyond the plastic fringes at the doorway. ‘Entrer,’ I reply in mistaken French.
He places the hot silver-foil package and cold can of beer on the table, then disappears into the afternoon.
P.S. I’m vegetarian.
Yikes! I ate the fish!
… Global temperatures are higher than ever recorded. I’m worried. But I figure that the only way we’re going to get through this cataclysmic era is to connect with people and smile as we step lightly.
I just checked the population statistics for January 2018 and there were 52 people in this village. Evidently that was on a good day… so far I’ve seen five in the street, but not all at once.
I’m here to keep the plants alive and walk the dogs while the owners are away. I’ve learned to walk. Big time. It’s twenty minutes up a mountain to the next village (where I hear there are 25 inhabitants) and the capital of the region is an hour away on foot across a ravine.
Day 1: up the mountain to water someone else’s garden.
Day 2: up the mountain and across the ravine to meet a friend.
Day 3: up the mountain, across the ravine, stick out thumb, hitchhike to town, return by late afternoon with full backpack… collapse on couch.
I could go into details about the brand of my tent (the fact that it weighs a tad more than a kilo is a great selling point) or tell you that I have the lightest sleeping bag I could find and it works most of the time, except for Russian Winters and damp river campsites. I also carry very little clothing because it’s easy to find more. But what is most important to me is travelling without personal baggage.
In fact, I find that the longer I travel the more things I discard.
Judgement has been a big one. Not the type that you need when you make decisions about where to pitch the tent or should I swim in crocodile infested waters, but judging other people. It’s a human thing, something we all do, but it feels so much lighter to accept the idiosyncrasies of other people who are mostly trying their best in a crazy world. I’m certainly not perfect at it but I’m practising hard.
People are just people everywhere. Some of us have enough food and shelter, some of us don’t. Some live in safe places while for others it’s a war zone. But we are all trying to get through the day, hoping to make a difference in something small or big. Everyone needs to relax when things are stressful. And we all want to be loved and acknowledged, to be accepted and appreciated.
That’s the start of what may grow into a very long list.
Sometimes a girl just has to do what a girl has to do. In this case it was hitchhiking with kittens. Or to be more precise, hitchhiking with two friends who were attempting to return to Germany from Greece with two very tiny cats.
I met the two Marias when I was camping on a beautiful Greek Island. As in many parts of the world, a new litter of kittens is a burden to a poor family who can’t afford the obvious solution of de-sexing the animals. One Maria adopted the two abandoned cats near some rubbish bins and became fiercely maternal about them. They were to go to Berlin, whatever the cost.
As it turned out the cost was high even though it was a lot of fun to begin with. The gorgeous little bundles of fluff amused us with their playfulness. They followed Maria everywhere, even into the cat box and then inside a bag when that proved too wieldy to carry. They meowed pitifully as we travelled with various kind people who picked us up: the woman from the Greek Embassy who told us about the recent order for trains that turned out to be the wrong guage for the lines, a classic story that went some way to explaining the financial crisis. Then the kind but reckless man who took us 100 kilometres out of his way because we were stranded at his service station after 10pm closing. As the car hurtled down the highway at 160 kph, I discovered why many Greek drivers make the sign of the cross. It made sense considering I was travelling with two Marias… but I remained rigid with fear.
We reached Kavala at midnight. The man went to a bar with his friend while we unsuccessfully looked for a cheap hostel and finally settled onto a metal bench in an amusement park along the foreshore. (See ‘Where to sleep at a pinch’).
The following day we tracked down a vet – an interesting process considering the three of us neither spoke or read Greek. Each kitten needed to have multiple vaccines and a passport. The cost, 50 Euros, a hard blow for a student. But Maria was determined and the kittens got their shots. Then she phoned the airport to confirm. The woman on the other end of the call repeated, ‘the kittens must be three months old and have their rabies shots before they fly’. The kittens were obviously under age.
Maria boarded the next plane without them. Maria and I were left with the tiny mewling babies and a phone number for an animal refuge in Thessaloniki. And so ended the hitchhiking with kittens story. This time we took the bus.
There’s those moments when the hostels are full and sleeping rough ticks the boxes, both for the sense of adventure and keeping the cash out of someone else’s pockets. It’s a way to travel further, longer, perhaps indefinitely. I have no idea. I’m making it up as I go.
I learnt that it’s possible to sleep anywhere from my Greek friends. My first encounter with concrete was at a tiny music festival in the medieval village of Aghios Lavrentios. I don’t have any photos but believe me, people camped on the church steps, on the hard stone of the plaza, and I (through lack of any other option) was among them.
I spent some days travelling Greece with two Marias, a German and a Romanian. Here was a lesson in how to sleep on a metal bench in an Amusement Park. Yes, we did get busted at 5am by a very nice man who allowed us to pack up slowly before he opened the rides. In the other photo you can see me attempting to sleep on a rocky beach front with a very small cat. This also rates as one of my best hitchhiking missions. (My next post is likely to be How to Hitchhike with Kittens.)