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.)
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.
“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.
I love hitch-hiking. People ask me about the risks involved and I tell them my best stories about grandmothers and women, with children stacked in the back seat, who decide to save me from danger and then happily take me to my destination. Then there are the locals. One of my favourite lifts was from a retired fireman who dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and continued up a track to his mother’s 95th birthday party. Lovely. However it was a stretch of road with no sign of traffic or habitation and a storm was about to hit. Fortunately he left me with his umbrella.