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.
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.
Madrid is awesome. There’s no doubt that the architecture is amazing and the people are cool. Of course I shouldn’t sleep, there’s bars waiting with great tapas and craft beer, an overload of fabulous images and people to absorb. But I’m on a mission. I need to be in France.
Ten hours later I’m in the big city and in a few more I’ll be in Toulouse. It’s a reckless way to travel but I’ve been to Madrid before and I have a deadline for another house-sit job near Toulouse.
I’ll be on another bus heading for another home. It’s been that way ever since I began travelling two years ago. Nothing stable. Everything to discover. In the meantime, I want to remember that there are so many people who are genuinely homeless without a safety net. I’m one of the lucky ones.
“Breathe in, breathe out. This is a sanctuary. Take off your weary clothes and the shoes that no longer shield your soles from the grit of the journey. “
It’s another hot day at Laguépie in the south of France and everyone is hanging out at the river. The lifeguard has a steady gaze. There’s screams, splashing and laughter as this crazy, inflatable spaceship rock and rolls.
The local kids are smoking cigarettes in the shade, wrapped in each others arms or taking selfies while Parisian girls cluster at the edge and dry their long black braids in the sun.
We are all shapes and sizes, ages and backgrounds with the same language of laughter. We are residents, visitors, travellers and refugees.
Thanks to Val Johnson, for introducing me to some of the guys who have made it to France against enormous odds and found refuge in this small community. Val has been tireless with fund-raising, finding homes and resources and for encouraging diversity and inclusiveness. I’m also grateful to the people I met for their generosity and smiles. I wish everyone a future where peace and happiness is as simple as a day at the river.
This is not a definitive list. Some people are way more adventurous than I am. And as lists go, how to I order it?
At the moment my preferred method for getting around is on foot. Very old school and not going to be for the couch potatoes but fabulous for really seeing things in all their detail – a total winner for artists and poets. No cost except for wear and tear on footwear.
Hitchhiking is another favourite. Every lift is an adventure. Every person has a story to tell. No cost other than be a good listener.
The train is great for stretching out and sleeping when the fatigue of travel or socialising has caught up. It can be cheap. Check Evasio futé in the Occitanie region of France.
There are some great bus companies like ALSA, Flixbus and OUI. Often super cheap and sometimes the WIFI works but not always in the centre of town. A ticket from Madrid to Toulouse cost me less than 10 Euros.
There’s also Blablacar, my favourite for learning the local language and sometimes cheaper than the bus. It’s organised hitchhiking with a well organised and secure site. You can see where the driver is going, the time for the trip, their references and how much it costs in advance.
Finally, the bike is a sheer joy. Australia and New Zealand are currently the only countries where helmets are mandatory so I’m taking advantage of the wind in my hair and the freedom of coasting down a long and deserted hill.
Okay, I have to confess that I’m not a newbie in France. I made a life here once and it was sweet as the grass that Henri Jambart scythed by hand and fed to his tiny herd of cattle. Henri was my neighbour and my friend and he worked the land with sweaty love. He was the tail end of a tradition that went back further than he could count.
He didn’t go to the Second Great War due to an accident where his hand was caught in a machine. I knew that was a fortunate thing but Henri felt otherwise. The other men had stories to tell around the kitchen table and different scars to compare.
I learned many things from this man; that every season had it’s place, independence was to be valued at the cost of relationships and friendship could be made across generational, language and cultural boundaries.
I visited the cemetery recently and sat with his grave but I am sure that Henri is with his fields. I found a ball of string he used to line up his plots of Summer vegetables. The old oak tree knows. It stands sentinel over it all.
It’s not only black and white. The minor chords of grey that make the symphony complete and harmonious are playing in my mind. I have history here. Stone steps that leave an impression on the soft humous scattered about the earthy floor.
I am travelling light, treading lighter, carrying my creativity wherever I go.
Jet-lag has subsided a degree or two but the temperature in Paris is still simmering. I meet a friend and we walk the day into the night. My French is rusty. Her English fabulous. Before long we are contemplating ways to exchange countries. The lure of another culture and landscape pulls like a French bulldog on a snappy lead.
I took the leap. Australia is behind me and a steaming Paris day ahead. My backpack is carefully loaded with sixteen kilos of everything I think need for the year ahead… or perhaps it two? I have my tent, sleeping bag, and a half-sized inflatable mat in anticipation of adventures. My sketchbook, my camera, my Macbook are stowed inside, along with a change of clothes and my toothbrush. The Long Stay Visa was a nightmare but PTS is good enough reason to skip the details – unless you press me. Sharing Tips is part of the package. A solo traveller needs all the help she can get.