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 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.
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.
Of course it’s subjective, but I’m a great fan of the 5 million star hotel. I love wild and exotic places full of the murmurs of trees and the rush of pure mountain streams.
I’ve slept on deserted beaches in the height of Summer and moved on when the bite of Autumn approaches.
I started young, risk-taking in the best sense. Living in wild country in Australia from the age of 20. Very much later, I travelled to France where I lived for 4 years, learnt the language and travelled everywhere on foot or bike. This began a decade of on and off solo travel. Two years ago I left every perceived security behind and now I have a backpack and me. I’ve been to most countries in Europe and have had the best time meeting people while camping in the wilds of Greece, walking Morocco, wandering Russia, hitch-hiking in France and Spain. Of course, I could be the exception or something just hasn’t happened YET but I know that it doesn’t matter what you wear … it does matter what your attitude is. BE CONFIDENT because people can see if you’re not and some may take advantage of it. Love what you are doing. Smile at as many people as you can. That guy who follows you was a one off, right? Shit does happen. But adjust, find a safe route. Walk tall. There are cultural differences, there are crazy people everywhere. I prefer to make up my plans as they open up and keep adventuring. I also want to put in a word for Couchsurfing and Blablacar. Both excellent ways to meet strangers and practice a new language. The sites are curated and there’s testimonies for the people who offer car rides or a place to stay. Of course be observant but above all, don’t live in fear.
Note: Some countries encourage wild camping. You are free to pitch a tent where you choose in Sweden, Krygztan in Central Asia, Norway, Scotland, Iceland, Estonia, Finland, Mongolia and Turkey. Some other countries have a culture of camping even though it is forbidden in law so talk to other travellers and they may share their secrets.
We’re all hung over and the journey is for dreams. I’m just totally sleep deprived after a night in a cheap and clean but extremely restless hostel. If I had two hours I’d be surprised. The other passengers smell of sweat and pull out their best comfort for the kilometres that hum by. Madrid is in the rear-view mirror and Toulouse ahead. I curl onto the seat and lie on my bag.
At some point I break my zeds and discover that the bones of the mountains are lying naked under an azure sky. The Spanish side is bare and beautiful. Then a long tunnel divides the dry southern landscape from the green-cloaked body of France.
It’s a ten hour trip by bus and thankfully there was a decent sandwich shop on the French side because I left while the shops were still shuttered in Madrid. The driver navigated the tortuous curves with prowess and we arrived at the gare routière in Boulevard Pierre Semard ten minutes ahead of schedule. Sigh of relief because I still had a train to catch.
PS please excuse the quality of the photos. My phone was the lazy and convenient option.