Less than savvy: Tangiers, Morocco

I try not to be the stereotypical stupid tourist when I travel. Before I go somewhere, I look into guidebooks, consult friends, websites – you name it. I do all of this so that when I arrive in a foreign land I don’t look completely ignorant. I do it so when I visit somewhere different, I don’t make rookie mistakes. I do it so when I’m immersed in another culture, I don’t act like a dumbass. But, sometimes, despite my best efforts, I do anyways…

It was evening in Tarifa, Spain. My friend Justin (pictured above) and I were relaxing on the 3rd-story rooftop of our hostel. Gazing south, we watched large freighters pass through the 8-mile gap between two landmasses. We were sitting on the southern tip of Europe. Beyond the ships and low clouds to the south were the mountains of Africa, rising abruptly from the Strait of Gibraltar. As the sun set on the Atlantic, the distant lights of Morocco flickered to life. Tomorrow we were crossing that narrow strait and heading towards those lights. Tomorrow we were going to Africa.

Looking back, I saw details of the Spanish coast disappear behind a white wake and sea spray. The ferry was fast; in thirty minutes our boat was docking in the blue-watered Moroccan port of Tangiers, a place often cited as ‘difficult’ to visit. There, the competition to get tourist dollars is particularly fierce. Every guidebook warns visitors extensively of faux guides and swindler’s tricks. They also say to always pretend you know where you’re going, even when you don’t, lest you get taken advantage of.

The Old Quarter from above

On shore, we did our best to feign confidence and follow directions to our hostel. Yet, our best led us into a maze of crowded narrow corridors, with no end in sight. So when two men appeared and offered their assistance, we promptly disregarded all previous advice. “The Dar Jameel, we’ll show you. Follow us.” Justin and I looked at each other, shrugged and followed the men. To their credit, they led us right to our hostel, the Dar Jameel – a peaceful refuge from the crowded streets. After unloading our belongings we found the two men were still outside, waiting for us. They introduced themselves as Achmed and Achmed and offered to show us around the city.  Again, we agreed. Guidebooks, as it turns out, really aren’t much help if you ignore them.

Following our new ‘guides,’ we headed towards the old Casbah. We passed carts overflowing with flatbread, hoards of curious children and vendors selling an array of fragrant fruits and vegetables, half of which resembled props from Star Wars. We were in a sea of people shouting Arabic and moving about as if standing still was frowned upon.  Tangiers was exotic, exciting, and well past overwhelming.

A less hectic corner of the Medina

Shortly thereafter, the Achmeds led us into a shop filled with a multitude of rugs draped over tables, hung on walls, and rolled into any available space. The storeowner appeared from the shadows, greeted us like old friends, brought us sweet mint tea and began a well-orchestrated sales pitch. First, he cloaked Justin and me in silk sheets so that we’d resemble Bedouin people… or so I guessed. “Now you look like Jesus in the desert,” the large Arab man proclaimed with a smile. Although I was satisfied with my resemblance to Christ, I was still leery. Maybe it was because the man bore an uncanny resemblance to Stromboli, the Disney villain who deceived, caged, and, presumably, had his way with Pinocchio. Or maybe it was because, ultimately, I knew he was after our money. Either way, I was uneasy of such kindness.

The salesman laid out many Berber carpets before us. Indeed, they were all stunning. Yet, I had no intention of buying one. This didn’t bode well with Stromboli. “My friend, tell me which one you like, and I will help you,” he would say. “They are very nice, I just have nowhere to put one,” I’d say back. “Just let me help you,” he would insist.  When he realized I wasn’t swaying in my position, he became angry. “Do you not like these carpets?” He barked. “No I just, ugh…” As I trailed off, my eyes began to wander around the shop. We were a couple of stories up inside a narrow building with very few windows. There was only one downstairs exit and the rooftop walls were embedded with shards of broken glass. We were trapped inside a carpet shop with an angry Disney villain.

Stromboli then turned to Justin, who had expressed interest in a small rug. After a long, heated negotiation, they arrived at a reasonable price. But, wishing not to spend money, Justin had left his credit card in our room. “No problem my friend, Achmed will take you back to get it,” the salesman said. So Justin headed back to our hostel with one of our guides, leaving me alone with 1000 carpets and a puppet rapist.

Becoming separated from your travel companion on your first day in Morocco was not suggested in our research. And, I may be wrong, but I don’t believe being alone in a dimly lit shop with a large, erratic stranger was either. But, there I was, twiddling my thumbs and hoping for Justin’s return. Twenty minutes passed and still no sign of him. I grew nervous. Stromboli sat at a large desk at one end of the room, staring forward with a stern expression. “What a dumb idea this was,” I thought. I had no real clue where I was in the city, nightfall was approaching and the only person I knew on the continent had run off with a guy named Achmed. Then, just as I contemplated heading to the roof with the most magical-looking carpet and taking my chances, Justin returned with his credit card. Immediately, the smile returned to Stromboli’s face. I’m thankful Justin bought the carpet. I guess he thought it was better to leave the shop with one rolled up in hand than rolled up in one.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the streets with the Achmeds in a state of combined awe and suspicion. In the early evening, they took us back to our hostel. Our guides then invited us to go to their place for dinner. They both seemed like nice guys, and they were probably on the level, but we had taken enough risks for one day. We thanked them, gave them each a generous tip and said goodbye.

That night we sat on the roof of the Dar Jameel, which had a near panoramic view of the city, and smoked hookah. At first, the many mistakes of the day occupied my mind. It was unnerving to think of what could have happened. But as we continued smoking hookah, the sun inched towards the sea and a breeze blew in from the mountains. Now, to the north, the lights of Spain appeared. They were as distant and strange as the lights of Africa had been the night before. As I marveled at the difference a thirty-minute boat ride can make, my thoughts finally settled. Then, only one occurrence kept drifting back to my mind…

After leaving Stromboli’s, we stopped to rest near an old church when one guide walked up with a smile and pointed towards the cemetery. There we saw two tortoises doing it in the slow, strained way only large-shelled reptiles can. We, too, smiled and laughed. Justin and I were sitting in a church garden, with two Muslim men named Achmed, in North Africa, watching tortoises plow in the shade of a tombstone. While it stands as one of the oddest moments I’ve ever witnessed, there was something innately comforting and familiar about the situation: no matter where you are, what culture you’re from, and how many stupid things you’ve done in a day, animals having sex is always funny.

Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing

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Braemar, Scotland: Oh, the life we led

I never thought I’d hear the phrase “yes, the milkman should be coming Tuesday” used in normal conversation. And I certainly never imagined hearing the words “oh, I think I may have left them in the castle” spoken in sincerity. But, then again, I never thought I’d get to spend over two weeks in the Scottish Highlands.

I met Kat during a tour of Western Australia. She was short, Scottish and hilarious. We got along instantly. Though we had discussed Andrew and I visiting her in Scotland, we never actually ironed out the details. I was under the impression she lived in the city of Aberdeen, where we could stay with her for 3 to 4 nights tops.  “Well, I was actually hoping you guys could stay for a couple weeks,” Kat told me over the phone. “Yeah, I live with my parents in Braemar, a small village in the Highlands. Oh, and I think I’ve gotten you two some work at the local pub.” Kat explained further. I was stunned. Multiple-week stay? Pub work? The potential to reenact Braveheart? It all seemed too perfect.

By the time we arrived in the UK, I was used to the trials and tribulations of international travel. Australia had made me accustomed to problems, which I expected on a daily basis – almost to the point of becoming suspicious when nothing went wrong. So it’s not that I didn’t believe Kat, but I didn’t.

Andrew and I arrived late one night in early September. With our full backpacks, we stepped out of an empty bus onto a dimly lit cobblestone street. Kat, who met up with us in Aberdeen, led us up a small hill to a cottage on the edge of the village. A sign outside the stone house read “Birchwood.” Inside we met Kat’s parents, Andy and Sheila Anderson. They greeted us as if we were their long-lost prodigal children and insisted we sit down for sandwiches and lentil soup, even though we had already eaten.

After supper, the Andersons showed us to our separate upstairs quarters. Each was complete with a comfy bed, thick blankets and sinks with separate hot and cold water faucets. I found Andrew that night wandering the halls, also in shock with our undeserved good fortune. “I bet we’ll find a body in one of these closets,” he whispered. I, too, had the feeling that we had been lured into something. At the very least, they had to be religious fanatics. Yes, that was it. Andrew and I were their cult’s hope to bring new seed into a bottlenecking gene pool. Being the larger physical specimen, Andrew would certainly be the first to get raped. His girlish screams would alert me in the night, giving me time to slip out the window and flee to the highlands. Comforted by my plan and chalking Andrew up as a loss, I went to sleep.

Andrew's room

The next morning we discovered Birchwood used to be a bed and breakfast, which the Andersons had stopped running just a few years before. So, as it turns out, their stellar hospitality wasn’t part of an elaborate plot to kill, eat or take sexual advantage of us. Sheila and Andy were just really nice people, who were accustomed to treating their guests like, well, paying customers. Except Andrew and I weren’t paying customers, we were freeloading bastards.

Every morning there I would wake up well rested, before making my way to the window. Yawning and stretching, I’d draw back the curtains and let light pour into the room, exposing views of roundtop mountains covered in green grass and purple heather.

Looking down upon the village of Braemar

My first meal of Haggis!

After putting on pants, I’d wander downstairs to the breakfast table to find our places set with elegance and care. At the center of the table, there would be a spread of granola, yogurt, bread, butter, jam, fruits and decorative jugs containing fresh milk and orange juice. Compared to my house back in Texas, where granola only comes in bar form and napkins are reserved solely for special occasions, this was lavish.

“Good morning Eric,” A cheery voice would say. Sheila would then round the corner with an empty tea glass. “Did you sleep alright?” she’d ask. “Oh, yes ma’am, thank you.” I’d respond. “Is Andrew having a lie-in this morning?” Sheila would inquire further. “Well, I haven’t seen him emerge yet.” I’d answer with a mouth half-filled with toast. “Oh, make sure when he comes down you let him know there’s more pomegranate juice in the fridge.” She’d say before disappearing out the door. Five minutes later, I’d hear the distinct sound of large, bare feet advancing on a wooden floor. Andrew would enter the kitchen and ease into his chair. I’d watch him begin methodically organizing his breakfast. Eventually, Andrew would look up at me with sleepy eyes and a compact, but deeply satisfied smile. Then he’d cram an entire piece of toast in his mouth and I’d go back to reading the paper. That was how our mornings in Scotland began.

After a few days of this treatment, we made it our mission to repay them through chores.  We came up with a list: vacuuming, tidying the separate guesthouse, tending to the garden, chopping wood, sheep hunting, etc. I even offered to clean the local castle (with one of those fancy feather dusters I’d assume) where Sheila worked. They claimed they didn’t want us to lift a finger, but it’s possible they knew we’d cause more harm than good. Either way, even offering to do the simplest of tasks like cleaning the dishes was met with a “don’t be ridiculous” type of response. I recall after one delicious meal of freshly caught salmon, we were even told to stop thanking them.

Though I embraced the luxury of our situation, my subconscious could never quite come to terms with it. Every morning I still half expected to wake up on a stained mattress in a shitty hostel surrounded by a collection of random men. Those mornings were, indeed, yet to come. But, for the time being, every day I woke up to more comforts and hospitality than seemed possible.

Andy, Kat, and Sheila Anderson

Now, make no mistake, our time in Breamar wasn’t just one big slumber party. Kat, Andrew and I had many adventures and lively times involving camping, backpacking, bagpipes, whiskey, a royal hunting party and the Queen. And those tales are soon to come.  But, my point is, if we wished to spend each day filling the time between meals by reading, napping and farting on nice furniture, we could have. A few times we did. It was strange how everything worked out and so little went wrong. Honestly, I believe the worst news we heard during that entire two-week span was “I’m afraid all there is for pudding tonight is raspberries and cream… I’m terribly sorry.”

Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Travel Tales, World Travels | 4 Comments

Into the Never Never: Part II

Sand swallowed up our every footstep as David and I approached the desert compound. The man shrouded in shade continued on his path towards us. I was anxious to see him in the light – curious about what he looked like and wanting to confirm he wasn’t carrying a weapon. Alas, an old man emerged from the shadows wearing sandals, shorts and a faded orange cutoff, which barely covered his protruding belly. His face was mostly hidden by wildly growing facial hair and the shade provided by a floppy camouflage hat. But, it was undoubtedly him, the humorously unkempt and thankfully unarmed local legend, Mr. Talc Alf.

David called out a greeting and explained our interest in looking at his art gallery. Alf looked us over for a moment, then nodded and told us to follow him. Underneath the roof made of things he clearly found, we discovered an intricate workspace. Though there were plenty of chisels, drills and other cutting devices, I felt quite certain he wasn’t going to use them on us. While clearly a bit off, the old hermit was surprisingly amiable and welcoming. Talc Alf didn’t seem the type to murder us, steal the car and dispose of our remains in a barrel of acid. He seemed more like the type that lives in a cave and confides his feelings in a volleyball.

A man and horse becoming one?

Alf’s art was made from the soft white stone, Talc (big surprise, I know). His sculptures and etchings, admittedly, were very good. But, his theories and ramblings were even better. For the first thirty minutes, I listened intently to his explanations about written language, boomerangs and spaceships. After an hour, Alf transitioned into speaking about the beauty of life and reality of death in the outback. As his mind wandered aloud, my thoughts drifted back to something that happened the day before…

It was late afternoon and we were driving out of the mountains on a dirt road, just an hour before roads in the outback become hazardous. Back home in Texas, you have to watch the evening roads for deer. In South Australia, you have to avoid kangaroos, wombats and, especially, large wild camels. Small flocks of birds, however, won’t damage your vehicle, but aren’t a joy to barrel into either. Out of the blue, one smacked against David’s windshield and vanished into the dust behind the car. We pulled over and found a little zebra finch, like the ones from pet stores, lying dead in the road. David cupped the tiny bird in his hand and looked as if he had just run over a dozen sick orphans. We buried the finch in the red earth before heading to the pub where I met this cute bartender who —

“And that’s why if you put the letter ‘B’ on its back, it looks like a woman.” A voice interrupted. I snapped out of my daydream and noticed Talc Alf looking at me expectantly. Obliging his wisdom, I gave a gratuitous nod and made impressed noises. He seemed satisfied with this and continued. If it were a movie, Talc Alf would have been the rambling old man that nobody listened to because they thought he was crazy, but ended up being right about something that would save everyone. But, this wasn’t a movie and he was probably just crazy. David purchased a small carving and we thanked him for the hospitality.

Talc and me

Leaving Mr. Alf as we had found him, alone and scheming against the government, we left the compound and drove back to the highway.* Traveling south, we stopped at a coalfield overlook off the main road. It was quite a scene, just not a pretty one. There was an information board, a chain link fence and a hole in the ground the size of Manhattan. Here, man’s impact on the environment was undeniable and impressive in its own right. David stared at the open-pit coalmine for a long minute, before turning with an air of disgust.

In the first hundred or so years of Australia’s European occupation, the outback was notorious for taking human life. “Out on the wastes of the Never Never – that’s where the dead men lie!” Read the opening lines of a famous 19th century poem. So, I guess you could say the coalfield near Lyndhurst is just our way of evening the score.

Walking away from the gaping wasteland, we got into the car and headed back towards the National Park. The sun was setting on the golden horizon as we turned onto a familiar dirt road. Remembering the bird incident from the afternoon before, David said “I better go slower this time, I don’t know what would happen if I hit a kangaroo.”

Immediately following that statement – no exaggeration – a large Western Grey Kangaroo bounded in front of the car. David braked hard, but the animal crashed against the front bumper, flew up a little bit and tumbled to the side of the car. The vehicle skidded to a halt. David and I looked at each other with equal amounts of horror. In the side mirror, I saw the kangaroo flailing around in the dust, looking as if it might just lie down and die in an instant. I glanced back at David, who said, “We might have to kill it.”

On that same road, the day before

I nodded and mentioned the large knife in my bag, which, up to this point, mostly served a vegetable-cutting purpose. As I searched for my knife, David stepped out of the car only to find that the kangaroo had vanished. After searching further, we saw no signs of it. “Maybe it was just a little shaken up.” I said, hoping to make David feel better. But we hit the animal going 70 kph and later found out it caused $2,000 in damages to the car. We both knew, in all likelihood, it limped out into the desert and died. As much as David and I wanted to think of ourselves as environmental stewards, we had just racked up another point for mankind.

It was a sad and upsetting way to conclude the day. But, as Talc Alf would say, it’s a part of life in the outback. You have to accept the good with the bad: the fun night at the pub with the headache the next morning, the unique art gallery with the hour-long explanation of the letter ‘B’ and the prosperous coal industry with the mile-wide eyesore. And at the end of the day, I had to be thankful for two things: the first was that we hit a kangaroo and not a camel. The second was that I was soaking in a nice warm shower and not a big barrel of acid. All possibilities considered, our day in the outback went pretty well.

*I’ve since found out that Talc Alf’s real name is Cornelius Johan Alferink. He was born in Holland in 1945 and he lives with his wife, who he married in 1974.

Reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Travel Tales, World Travels | 2 Comments

Into the Never Never: Part I

There’s a place called Snowtown in South Australia. Twenty years ago, its only interesting attribute was having the name of a fanciful ski village, despite being located on level ground where it never snows. These days, however, it’s best known for a string of torturous killings that took place throughout the 1990’s. The perpetrators of these slayings preyed upon the disabled, the different and the elderly, often continuing to collect the government pensions of the victims while their bodies were stored in barrels of hydrochloric acid. This story takes place ten years later, three hundred kilometers to the north and involves neither acid nor serial killers. But, it does have its fair share of old people, rusty barrels and untimely death…

March 14th, 2009. A dusty roadside, South Australia

I couldn’t sleep any longer; the squawking parrots and growing heat made sure of that. With a dry mouth and dawning headache, I sat up in my sleeping bag and looked around. My khaki shorts were tossed onto a pile of rocks, my sandals were scattered upon the ground and my legs had escaped the bag and were now lying in the sand. A swarm of black ants encircled me, but kept their distance. I suppose it was the one positive effect of having not showered in 72 hours.

Looking down on where we slept

My newest travel partner, an Australian guy named David, was about a hundred feet from my encampment, still lying motionless in the shade of a gum tree. I stared at him for a long moment with a deep envy before peeling a sweaty sleeping roll off my body. Then my ant friends and I waited patiently for David to stir to life. After he awoke, we decided a short hike might do our bodies well and help us devise a new plan for the day.

The afternoon before, we learned the nearby National Park was closing for the day to allow professional hunters to shoot feral goats from foot, vehicle and helicopter. While I was in full support of blasting goats from aircraft, this news put a hitch in our backpacking trip. In most places on earth, a slight change in plans isn’t a huge deal. But in rural Australia, the phrase “well, I guess we could always…” has very few possible endings. And most of those include alcohol – an option we didn’t wish to consider that morning.

So, we climbed to the summit of a nearby peak where the views of crumbling mountainsides were only broken in one direction. To the west, a dirt road ran from the end of the mountain range to a far off clump of trees and buildings. Somewhere near that little piece of civilization was Parachilna Pub – the source of our previous night’s joy and present morning’s misery. Beyond that, an arid plain stretched undisturbed to a distant horizon. Out there was the less glamorous Australian Outback; the part lacking festive beach barbeques and scantily clad women, the part the steakhouse commercials from back home failed to show.

We stood for a few minutes and stared out into the tan abyss. “Well,” David said without breaking his gaze. “I guess we could always drive out there.” I didn’t know what, if anything, to expect from out there. But, in lieu of better options, I was willing to find out. “Sounds like a plan.” I said. Once off the mountain, we got into David’s car and headed out into the vast, open country Australians often vaguely refer to as the Never Never.

The two-lane highway we traveled skirted the edge of the ranges before the mountains began to peter out and fade into the plains. Soon the radio station went the way of the mountains and became garbled and faint. A strong breeze carried dust along the barren ground, where only stunted shrubs grew. Some twenty miles away, a remote mountain peak floated above the horizon, undercut by a mirage of sky.

The term ‘Never Never’ was beginning to make sense when we reached a point where the asphalt, fence lines and vegetation vanished. David stopped the car for a moment and we both stared out the front windshield, giving us the opportunity to appreciate what nothing, in all its glory, looked like. There was no denying it now; we were truly in the outback. 

A few minutes later we arrived at the small outpost of Lyndhurst and pulled into a petrol station. A sign across the road read “Next Service Innamincka 473.” I had been to desolate outback towns before, but many of them were so famous for their remoteness, they had become gimmicky. This town, Lyndhurst, was desolate without the fanfare.

Downtown Lyndhurst

I took a short stroll to confirm its emptiness. There wasn’t a soul around and the only noise was the occasional crash of metal siding, windblown racket from a nearby junkyard. For ten minutes, I crept around buildings with the polite quietness one only typically demonstrates in a library… or graveyard. If there were people in those structures, I was betting they weren’t the kind of folk that like to be disturbed.

There was one person out there, however, that we were told to visit. The people at the pub the night before explained that he was an old hermit/artist who went by the name ‘Talc Alf.’ Saying that he lived on the edge of town would imply there was some type of lively center, but he was a few kilometers down dirt road. We turned at a hand painted sign and followed a sandy road until we arrived at some kind of compound. David slowed to a stop in a dirt oval surrounded by concrete pillars, junked machinery entrenched in sand and crudely welded metal things. Most of the structures were covered in random words and letters, many of which were spelled backwards or drawn upside down. Painted on the centerpiece, made from cement columns and rusted railroad ties, were the words “Australian Liberation Front.”

A dog stood barking at the edge of the complex while I sat still, contemplating how much of a good idea it was to exit the vehicle. If horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that people always become crazier the further away you get from urban centers. And it didn’t get much further away than this. Sitting there, I couldn’t help but look at the old barrels and think of Snowtown. Surely a man whose property consisted of sand and rusty metal scraps could do better than barrels of low-grade acid. But, then I reasoned that if it were a trap, we were probably already caught. So, I opened the door and stepped out onto the sand. Walking a few steps behind David, I approached the compound. A figure of a man began to take shape in the shadows below a tin roof. As he advanced towards us, I tried to shake the feeling that something bad was bound to happen before the day’s end… something worse than going another 24 hours without a shower.

To be continued…

As always, the first draft was reviewed and edited by Katie Chassaing. On the second draft, however, I was left to my own devices.  So any errors you may find reflect my incompetence, not Miss Chassaing’s.

Posted in Travel Tales, World Travels | 1 Comment

Europe: Danger!

I’ve met a lot of Americans who posses an unwarranted fear of traveling Europe. Some seem to equate a stay in a hostel with, well, what happens in the movie Hostel. Some seem to think if you visit a place with a name like ‘Slovenia’ or ‘Slovakia’ you’re likely to never return. “Is it safe?” people ask. The answer, of course, depends on your definition of safety.

If the question refers to the odds of getting shot, murdered, or systematically hacked into pieces, then yes, I’d feel pretty comfortable saying most of Europe is safe. With the exception of participating in a soccer riot, you’re far more likely to meet a violent end here in good old gun-laden America. Now, if by “safe” you are referring to the safety of your possessions and money, then the answer becomes a bit more complicated.

I was never nervous in any small towns throughout the continent. But most travelers don’t spend most of their time in rural Europe. People from all around the world (including America) concentrate their touring efforts in a handful of popular European urban destinations.

Crowded street in Bordeaux, France

In these ‘checklist cities’, massive numbers of foreigners shuffling around crowded attractions is an absolute dream for thieves. Think about it. In general, we’re loaded with travel money, wearing bright colors and often so caught up in our surroundings that we let our guard down. Really, the citizens of Rome and Barcelona would be dumb not to rob us.

Now, I don’t mean to pick on Italy and Spain for the hell of it, it’s just that’s where all my personal bouts with such matters come from. My first time in Italy, on a 2007 family vacation, every American we met had a tale of theft. Inspired, my goal was to thwart all the would-be pick-pocketers I encountered.

A few days later in Rome, we boarded a bus after dinner. A crowd, equal parts tourists and locals, filled the bus until it was possible to become intimate with any one of the ten strangers touching you. My younger brother, Shane, and I were in the front, while the rest of our family was confined to the rear of the bus.

As had become my practice, I had my hand over the right front pocket holding my wallet, which was aptly filled with worthless keepsakes and used giftcards. Soon, I felt fingers creeping into that pocket. I couldn’t believe it; this was the moment I’d been waiting for! Making sure it wasn’t just an innocent mistake, I lessened the pressure on my wallet and let the guy dig in there nice and deep like. Jackpot.

My immediate instinct, being from Texas and all, was to pull the guy’s hand out by the wrist and yell, “Boy, looks like you got yer hand caught’n the cookie jar! Oooooooooweeeee!” I’d follow this declaration with a swift uppercut and then the entire bus would erupt in an old west saloon style brawl. The flaw in this option was that they usually work in pairs. Not wishing to get decked from behind, I went with a less dramatic approach.

I grabbed the guy’s fingers and twisted them back with all the force I could muster until he ripped his hand from my pocket. Then the man and his partner began to shove their way to the door. I looked at Shane, who was clueless, and started pointing and mouthing “pick-pocketer.” He just stared back at me confused.

Okay, so it wasn’t as heroic of an occurrence as I hoped, but at least I kept the $2.37 credit on my Starbucks card. On the other side of the bus, a middle-aged guy’s run-in went differently. Apparently, upon noticing his wallet was gone, the man turned to the thief and croaked, “Excuse me sir, I think you have my wallet.” To this the crook replied “No, no,’ and exited the bus. So I could have done worse.

Likely the last photo ever taken of Jill... with her bags

This last time through Italy, Andrew and I made it through without incident. But, our Canadian friends were not so lucky. After we parted ways in Rome, the two girls boarded a regional train to Florence. Jill, who sat in a different car from Stephanie, stowed her belongings under her seat. Listening to her iPod, she dozed off as a stop approached. Jill awoke five minutes later to discover both of her bags were gone. In that small window, someone had stolen all her clothes, visa information, camera and asthma medication. Andrew and I, I’m sad to say, were partially to blame. You see, after spending over a week with two huge guys, these girls had become used to the constant security our presence provided them. So we’ve always felt responsible.

Nevertheless, Jill dealt with the situation with incredible composure and good sense. Admittedly, if I had been in her place, I would have spent several days in a dark corner, muttering, crying and lashing out at Andrew’s attempts to comfort me. Jill simply purchased what she needed (clothes, a winter coat, a bag, etc.) and enjoyed the rest of her trip.

Some two weeks later, we met up with the girls in Barcelona, Spain – another place cautioned as theft prone. We spent a lovely winter’s evening on the city’s main beach, which was near empty. That didn’t matter. While building a sand castle with Jill, I noticed a man in the corner of my eye. He picked up my backpack and began walking off. “Whoa whoa whoa!” I shouted, while preparing for the inevitable chase scene to come. Barcelona has loads of narrow alleys, hanging fire escapes, old people to push down and even a fruit market! It was perfect. I was ready. But, the man handed my bag back to me without hesitation. Baffled by this move, I responded with “thank you.”

So, having a concern about your possessions while visiting some of the more popular destinations is very reasonable. Thinking you’re going to meet a sinister demise while exploring Europe is not. Additionally, having an unrelenting fear of getting robbed, to the point where it dissuades you from traveling, is silly. Unfortunately, these worries stop many potential travelers from ever buying a plane ticket – and that’s a shame.

I’m not a shining example of this, but the keys to safe travel are doing your research and applying common sense. But above all else, if you do catch a thief, don’t ask for your belongings back politely. And if they do give you your stuff back, certainly don’t thank them like an idiot.

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Travel Tangents, World Travels | 2 Comments

Full Hobo: Avignon, France

Andrew and I were over three months into our European adventure, so I guess it was about time for us to go complete hobo. We had come close a few times – tenting in wine fields on a Grecian isle, camping on some farmer’s terrace in Italy and eating little but unrefrigerated, hardboiled eggs for a week straight. But, we had yet to actually sleep out on the street. A December night in Southern France seemed like a good time to start.

After two rainy days in the Italian wonderland of Cinque Terra, we wanted to make it all the way to Barcelona, Spain – a considerable distance by rail. We had no internet access to check schedules, so one morning we gathered our belongings and just got on a train heading west.

The trip took much longer than we anticipated. With long waits at each station, we didn’t reach France until after nightfall. When we arrived in Avignon, it was midnight. Sleepy-eyed and irritable, we checked the departure board. The next train to Barcelona left at 6 a.m. In fact, no trains left until that time because the entire station was closing. So Andrew and I, along with the other street rats, were ushered out of the station and into the chilly winter night.

Outside the terminal, we stood at the edge of one of the great ancient cities of France. I had been there a few years before with my family in the summertime. Shops sold art and fine wines, a giant carousel delighted children in the main square, happy tourists dawdled about and people sat and drank in happy excess outside crowded cafes. But the town we saw on this night was very different – doors and windows were shut up, the curbside cafes were void of life and the streets were cold and empty. The only signs of human occupation were large industrious street-cleaning machines and a fabulous array of Christmas lights, draped between the buildings and hanging above the streets.

We had no idea where the city’s hostels were, if they existed at all, and weren’t looking for them regardless. Neither of us wanted to pay 15 euros for 6 hours of lodging. Instead, we decided it best to find someplace outside – a bench, dark alley, half-empty dumpster, etc. – to spend the night. Not far from the train station, Andrew located option #1. It was a stairway, which led below ground and dead-ended at a locked door. The area was marginally clean and reasonably spacious with warm air radiating from the door. The only problem was it also looked like a place from where a janitor might emerge; a man that would surely be covered in grease stains, cheap wine and despair. Not wishing to get a swift mop to the ribs at 4am, we grabbed our packs and continued our search.

Soon we came upon the main square. Thousands of lights were strung overhead, illuminating a little Christmas shop village below. We snooped around this enchanted township with an interest made up of one part admiration, two parts desperation. Alas, all of the garland-covered retail huts were boarded up and locked. The novelty of being alone in a vacant, but beautifully lit medieval city was wearing off. By this point, we simply wanted a place to sleep where the odds of strange men doing horrible things to Andrew was low.

As we trudged on, circumstances grew more frustrating with every labored step. It was coming on December 25th, the night was getting late, we were tired from our journey, Andrew was with child and we could find nowhere to stay. And we didn’t even have a donkey.

Within twenty minutes of wandering, we came to a vast empty square. At the far end of the space stood the largest gothic cathedral in Europe. It was an imposing structure, rising several stories over the neighboring buildings. It looked as if a church had once tried to swallow a castle, but gave up halfway into the endeavor. As we approached, the fortress grew in the night sky until it loomed over us. We followed a wide stone path, which ascended along its southern wall, to a raised stone courtyard that overlooked the square. The entire prominence was incased in a low stonewall. At its center was a commanding statue of the crucifix. In the far corner was an ideal spot for a good night’s sleep.

Poor poor Andrew

After a brief survey of our surroundings, we dropped our packs and began setting up. I watched Andrew put on all his winter layers before attempting to wedge his long body into his sleeping bag. He seemed to only make it in about three fourths of the way, leaving much of his upper body exposed to the frigid French air. This is probably why he didn’t sleep well.

I put on a beanie, scarf, heavy socks and wormed my way into my bag. Then I looked up at the cross towering above us. The lifeless face of Christ was tilted down and favoring his right shoulder. Had his eyes not been closed, he would have been staring right at us. I found this to be eerie, and yet strangely comforting: an odd mix of emotion, I know. But, I couldn’t help but have the creeping image that I was going to wake up at some point in the night only to see Jesus staring wide-eyed back at me, an occurrence that would have surely caused me to evacuate my bowels, jump the wall and leave Andrew to face judgment alone. But I also felt comforted and had faith in our mutual agreement – I wouldn’t pee anywhere near the church and he’d wake us up if any deviants tried to attack.

As I entered that hazy limbo between consciousness and sleep, a loud noise echoed off the cathedral. I first looked to Christ for a sign. But he was still sleeping. I sat up and peeked down on the square just in time to see a few dark figures dash back into the shadows – zombies no doubt. I ducked back behind the wall hoping they hadn’t seen me. A few minutes later I peered down at the square again and saw no sign of them. Satisfied, I nodded a thanks to Jesus for scaring them off, curled closer to Andrew and laid my head down on a bag of dirty laundry for a surprisingly restful three hours.

I’m not sure how we were able to sleep undisturbed outside one of the grandest cathedrals in Europe, especially given that Avignon seems like the type of affluent city that prides itself on keeping street urchins like Andrew and I away from its holy points of interest. Maybe the idea of two young people having a sleepover with Christ is so ridiculous that it’s not seen as a security priority. Or maybe the Son of God really did watch out for us. Then again, Andrew and I really weren’t the best candidates to receive righteous protection. So, maybe our successful debut as European hobos just came down to luck. That, or we looked too pathetic to rob.

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Travel Tales, World Travels | 3 Comments

Two Countries, One River and Fifteen Hot Dogs

I stood above the river on a small rise. The steep mountains to the south still glowed with the evening sun, but the surrounding landscape dimmed. As the desert cooled off, I placed my propane stove on a rock and lit a match. Then I cracked open a beer and walked over to a collection of meager trinkets scattered on the ground. There were painted walking sticks made from yucca stocks, pieces of volcanic glass, scorpions made of wire and a few beaded bracelets. Nearby, a plastic money jar weighed down with rocks accompanied a handwritten sign that read “Donations of clothes, foods, and school supplies also welcomed for the children of Boquillas.”

The town Boquillas Del Carmen is, or more appropriately, was a little Mexican village lying across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. During the 1990’s the town had around 300 residents whose primary means of income came from our side of the border. Back then, national park tourists could take a ferry (rowboat) across the river to get drinks, eat enchiladas, rent donkeys and shop for crafts. This provided visitors a jolly time in old Mexico and provided the villagers with a livelihood. But then some assholes decided to highjack four planes on the east coast. Shortly after, all ‘soft’ border crossings into Mexico were closed indefinitely. This meant instead of paying a couple bucks to cross the river via rowboat, you could now be fined up to $1,000 for visiting Boquillas.

This devastated the little village. Since 2002, the town’s population has dwindled to less than 100 people. With no viable economic options, there are only two realistic ways to make an income: grow marijuana or sell ‘illegal’ souvenirs, like the ones I saw at my feet, to park visitors.

After walking back to put a pan on the stove, I stood up, tipped beer into my mouth and gazed across the river. A mile in the distance, I saw what once was Boquillas – now just a dozen desolate buildings lining a flat ridge above a muddy river.

A voice broke the silence. ‘Hola mi amigo!’ I looked down on the opposite bank of the river and saw a man on horseback. “Hola” I yelled back with some hesitation. “Would you like a walking stick my friend?” He asked. “Umm I already have a walking stick, thank you though.” I returned to fidgeting with the grill, but I knew the man was still watching. I took another drink of beer and then heard, “Friend! Do you have a cervesa for me?” I again called back, “Sorry, this was the last one.” Things were getting awkward now. I threw on the hot dogs and turned up the heat. He said something again, but I couldn’t hear over the burner.

I moved the dogs around on the pan for a minute before I sighed and stood up again. “Would you like a hot dog?” I shouted. He didn’t understand. “Ugh a hot dog… perro caliente” I tried to clarify. “For me?” the man said back. “Yes” I replied nodding my head. Then he gave his horse a light kick and rode through the Rio Grande into Texas. He rode up the embankment, onto the overlook, and stood before me.

Making hot dogs at the same spot the spring before with my friend Kaela and younger brother Shane.

The man looked to be in his early 30s, wearing a brown ball cap, an old cotton button up, tattered jeans and white tennis shoes with gaping holes. Below him was a decrepit saddle, below that was a skinny horse. One of his hands grasped a plastic grocery bag and the other extended in my direction. I reached out and shook it and he introduced himself as Felix. “My name’s Eric… what would you like on your hot dog” (a phrase I hope not to become accustomed to). The man indicated he wanted everything, including my red pepper flakes. I decided I liked him.

We talked as we ate – about the weather, the river, my car and his kids. “I’m sorry for my English.” Felix said after a while. “No your English is pretty good, much better than my Spanish. When did you learn it?” He explained how he used to work the ferry to bring tourists across the river to Boquillas. “And what do you do now?” I asked. Felix looked around a moment and shrugged. I felt stupid for asking.

The mouth of the canyon, downstream from Boquillas

After we finished the meal, he showed me the contents of his plastic bag. Inside were two cheaply made bracelets, which looked like they came from a dollar store. “These are nice, for your girlfriend,” Felix explained. I nodded convincingly. Then he pulled out the last item sunk into the bottom of the bag. It was a large purple rock, what I believed to be amethyst* (a childhood favorite from when I collected all rocks with an unwarranted enthusiasm). Felix could tell that I liked it. “Would you like to buy this?” he asked. “I would, but I don’t have any cash on me.” I said. Felix thought for a moment. “We could make trade for something… food or clothes or something.” This I could do. I went over to my car, popped the trunk and started looking around. In the cooler I had a ton of hot dogs, way too many for my trip. So I collected fifteen of them and matching buns. Rummaging through my bag, I found two clean shirts – one said Bud Light on the front and the other had a drawing of Christ wearing sunglasses and riding a surfboard. Deciding it’s what surfer Jesus would have wanted, I gave the man the hot dogs, shirts, and a towel.

Now make no mistake, I don’t think any higher of myself for giving a man a couple of measly articles of clothing and over-processed meat tubes. It really was the least I could have done. Had I been a saint I would have given him my running shoes, knife and my new long-sleeve shirt. And a saint certainly wouldn’t have lied about that last beer in the cooler. Alas, I am no saint.

After Felix neatly folded the shirts and tied the bag of hot dogs to his saddle, he reached into his bag and handed me the purple rock. Even though it seemed like the only thing remotely valuable he had with him, I didn’t argue in accepting it. The man wanted to trade commodity for commodity, he didn’t want to be a beggar. I like colorful rocks anyways, so I thought it was a good deal.

He thanked me repeatedly and wished me a nice night. Then Felix got back onto his horse and rode back down to the river. Daylight was all but gone now, the air grew chilly and the bright half-moon made new shadows in the desert.  Exhausting my knowledge of the Spanish language, I yelled “Buenas noches” as he and his horse waded back though the Rio Grande. Over the sound of the river, I heard his words echo back. Back in Mexico, the man dismounted his horse and began the long walk towards the distant village. I watched them for a while, until they disappeared into a mesquite thicket. Then I got into my silver Mustang, adjusted the seat a little, turned on the heater, put the stick in first gear and drove away.

*The rock turned out to not be Amethyst, rather fluorite, which is mined in that area of Mexico and used in steel manufacturing.

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing. Also, a special thanks to Caitlin Blocker for all those hot dogs.

Posted in Travel Tales, World Travels | 5 Comments

To Live and Die by the Grape

My life has never revolved so singularly around a particular fruit than during my time in Mclaren Vale. There, I lived by the grape. I picked them, I constantly ate them and most nights, I drank them. One particular night, I drank a few too many of them. Bad hangovers blow in any circumstance, but are absolutely awful when doing manual labor in the 100-degree Australian summer.

Our workday had finished early. Matt, Clara and I arrived back at camp in mid-afternoon, hot, dirty and pissed off with the typical news – no work the next day. They sat in their camp chairs and I took a seat on my tin of biscuits. Then Clara put the kettle on for tea while Matt and I continued to sit in silence. “Might as well go get some goon tonight then.” Matt suggested after a minute. “Yep.” I agreed without hesitation.

A cup of goon at camp

‘Goon’ is the appropriately named term for boxed wine down under. In a land where all other forms of alcohol are too expensive for anyone living in a tent, this cheap elixir was a blessing… and a curse. You could get a 4-liter box for $10 AUD, but consuming it was terrible. Think of the worst wine you’ve ever tasted and mix it with poison and that about does it. In an effort to avoid its full wrath, we’d mix the sickly liquid with cheap fizzy lemonade, creating a passable drink. That was the plan for the evening.

We didn’t even wait for the sun to go down. We didn’t even wait for dinner. In fact, thinking back on it, I don’t recall ever having dinner. Mike and Tina came over with their own box and joined in the festivities. The five of us sat around drinking until our work worries melted away into a glowing evening. Struck by the beauty, I took my camera and wandered into a nearby field. There I snapped photo after photo with the same enthusiasm one would employ at a sunset over a Hawaiian island, not a pasture filled with dead trees and power lines. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself.

A few hours later, our French friend Claire informed us that two guys on her crew decided not to work the next day. So, Matt and I declared we’d go in their stead. To celebrate our good luck, we had some more drinks, and then some more. The rest of the night is a collection of short scenes and muddled audio clips, all out of order and all separated by long periods of nothingness.

I recall lots of yelling, making fun of the uncouth German guys (who sold drugs from their shanty town in the corner of the camp) and the horrible old ladies that owned the place. I remember the always sweet and amiable Tina delivering a random rant of colorful expletives (the most memorable was the frequent use of “F*** Off Mike!”). I remember making a pass at my voluptuous Estonian neighbor. I remember failing. I don’t remember Mike and Matt crawling into my tent and singing to me at the nights end. But, I’m told it happened.

Around 3 a.m. Clara awoke suddenly, failed to find the tent zipper and threw up on her sleeping bag. Tina woke up the next day confused and covered in a multitude of bruises (from her frequent surprise meetings with the ground). Matt and I woke up at 5 a.m., suspiciously perky and ready to pick.

Our boss didn’t seem thrilled with our initiative of replacing the two no-shows, but let us work. Matt and I picked on opposite sides of the same vine. We laughed, joked and quoted Australian soap operas in our worst Australian accents as we worked. We were still very much intoxicated.

A few hours later I was done laughing. A sweltering sun burned through the morning clouds, a creeping hangover replaced my comical mood. I then found out I was dead last in the group’s bucket count. We were paid by the hour at this point, but they kept track of the buckets we picked and didn’t hesitate to fire those who underperformed.

As I tried to catch up, the hangover went full blown. The afternoon got worse. Temperatures soared. My head pounded, my stomach turned and I became severely dehydrated. But I kept going, thinking, “don’t complain, you’re making money, don’t complain. There can’t be many rows left.” But the rows ran endlessly that afternoon and work kept going. The grapes we picked were now small and shriveled, making filling a bucket all the more difficult. Then my condition worsened to the breaking point.

I watched a dust devil pass over the field. Dry grape leaves and dead grass swirled hundreds of feet into the air above us. I remember thinking, “well that’s neat… I’m going to die.” And I was honestly convinced. I no longer thought about working, the money, the freaking grapes or my bucket count. I just thought about what the local newspaper headlines would say. ‘Hungover Jackass Dies.’ And that’s where my life was to end, face down in the dust of South Australia.

I staggered around in a haze of dismal thoughts for a few minutes until Matt asked if I was okay. I gave him a grave look and then put my bucket down. “I need water.” I said. I wandered to the cooler and drank from the huge community cup. Then I promptly ran behind a truck and threw up everywhere. Onion and cheese sandwiches seemed like a good idea at the time, but then again, so did polishing off four liters of goon.

I stood with my hands on my knees waiting for the next wave of vomit when I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see my boss standing above me. “You can’t drink it that fast, mate.” He handed me a smaller cup and instructed me to sip it. I sat down in the dirt and drank the cool water slowly. Then I made a personal vow to never drink that much again… well, that much boxed wine… before work.

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Travel Tales, World Travels | 1 Comment

Pocket Burgers: The room temperature revolution

On the train from Berlin to Prague, Andrew and I met a guy from Ontario named Craig. We spoke with him the entire four-hour journey as we passed through river valleys and between foggy mountains. By the time we reached Prague, I found Craig to be a very likeable travel friend. But what Andrew found was something infinitely more rare.

As it so happened, the course of the first conversation led to food. It was then that Andrew and Craig discovered their equal infatuation with meals served fast and greasy. Once this was established, the two spoke for hours on the subject. And this was not just idle chitchat. It was the sort of lively engrossing conversation two people can only have when they share a deep innate passion for something. The fact that it was about Big Macs and combo buckets from KFC made it no less beautiful. They discussed every aspect of their favorite orders with such vivid imagery and lush detail – the texture of butter-laden mashed potatoes, the radiant heat from a slice of melted cheddar, the way a Jack in the Box taco feels between your teeth – it was nothing short of poetry. Normally, I’d jump into such talk with Andrew, but I would have been out of my league. I knew it. They knew it. So, I just looked on and listened in a state of respectful awe.

Over the next few days in the Czech capital, the conversation continued. Eventually, after every North American value meal and nugget deal had been covered, there was a brief silence. Then, Andrew’s eyes widened as he turned to Craig. “Hey, do you ever buy a ton of burgers and then keep one on you to save for later?” Craig answered without hesitation. “Oh you mean pocketburger, of course.” It was a concept Andrew had been tinkering with for years, but now he had a name for it. “Pocketburger” he repeated softly, as if it were a cherished secret. And that’s when I knew Andrew had found his fast food soulmate.

While the burger was the most common item to keep safe in a breast or jean pocket, Craig made it clear the concept was limitless. One day we took a three-hour free walking tour. After trouncing around the tourist-packed streets of Prague for hours, I noticed Craig eating a big yellow banana. “Where in the hell did you get a banana from?” I asked. He looked at me for a moment and then cracked a sly smile. “Of course,” I thought, “he’s had it on him the entire time.” And my, what a good-looking banana it was – yellow, firm and spotless. If you had given me the same piece of fruit, it would no doubt have turned into a bruised brown mess over that time frame. Indeed, the man was professional.

We spent three beautiful days together. A bulk of the time Andrew and Craig spent deep in conversations, covering everything from Xbox Live to movies to music. But no matter where the conversation took them, the talk would, without fail, drift back to warm treats in the end.

We left Craig one morning. We had to head south, and he was going to Ireland. It was sad for all, but I believe it was hardest on Andrew. It’s a tough reality of traveling – to find a person so fitting only to have them ripped away from you in a matter of days. Yet, Andrew had learned some invaluable lessons in fast food consumption and particularly, pocket storage. In that way, Craig would always stay with us. Every time Andrew would cram a room temperature McDouble into his mouth, he was closer to Craig.

 

Andrew jamming a turkey sandwich into his mouth in Rome; not a PB, but you get the idea.

This might have been the reason Andrew’s pocketburger consumption tripled after Prague. Or maybe it was because the concept became even more appealing now that we knew what to call it. Either way, he spread the notion far and wide to all our new travel friends and it was well received. So much so, that by the end of the trip Andrew was receiving pocketburgers as gifts, courtesy of our Canadian friends Stephanie and Jill.

Only once was the pocketburger responsible for open conflict. We were in Rome with our Canadian friends and it was our last night, so we decided to go all out. This, of course, translated to wandering the streets with 6 liters of cooking wine. Andrew procured three burgers, devouring two readily and saving the final one for breakfast. But the next morning, it was nowhere to be found. Andrew was distraught. Trying to help, I brought light to the possibility that he simply got drunk and ate it. But Andrew scoffed at that idea and began implicating me in its mysterious disappearance. I swore I hadn’t consumed his treat, but I don’t think he ever believed me (which might explain why I found a stinky burger wrapper in an obscure pocket of my backpack after the trip – Andrew’s revenge, I suppose).

With the exception of that lone incident, the pocketburger was always a symbol of strength, cunningness, and the enduring will of North Americans to eat poorly in the midst of some of the finest cuisine on earth. It made our trip a bit cheaper and gave Andrew a name for one of the most ingenious concepts of the 21st century. And we have Craig to thank. So if anyone ever questions the contributions Canada has made to this planet, just say one word: pocketburger.

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Frugal Bastard Tips, World Travels | 4 Comments

Hiking in Croatia Part II: A bad idea

I have always loved wilderness disasters tales. But many left me wondering how seemingly intelligent individuals could walk into such obvious danger. This was the day I solved that mystery.

It was still morning as I stood at the trailhead. The city of Split, Croatia lay behind me. In front of me was the menacing route to Veliki Kabal. A metal cable insulated with deteriorating rubber was bolted to the mountainside. Appearing as if it once was a power line, it was not something I’d usually touch. But clinging to it seemed necessary for two reasons. The first was because of the steep drop on the other side. The second was because of my footwear.

I believe, many years before, they were running shoes. Now, calling them shoes was being generous. When I found them in my garage, the summer before, they were worn, torn and covered in grass stains. I think they were my Dad’s jogging shoes before being demoted to lawn mowing duty – traditionally the final act a shoe performs in the Straw house before completely dissolving. Not wanting to pay for competent footwear, I granted them the opportunity to see the world. Over the next four months they became my running/hiking/everyday shoes. The last bit of traction left them in Wales and now they were just socks with shoelaces.

This proved problematic because the trail was just a jumble of rocks. Only occasional red and white bull’s eyes markings distinguished the path from surrounding fields of ankle-breaking splendor. To add to my worries, I hadn’t seen anyone since the talkative old lady in the village, and it soon became clear that it was going to stay that way.

The sun shone intermittently from across the ocean, but more gray clouds approached from the north. The wind forced dry leaves from their branches and carried them across the mountainside. As I climbed higher, the trees grew smaller, the temperature grew colder and the clouds grew darker. Though I had a jumper, sweatshirt, beanie and a scarf in my backpack, all those layers would account for nothing when wet with rain.

As I continued up the mountain, my likely fate began to take shape. The rains would come and the pointy rocks would turn slick. I’d slip, hurt myself and become immobile. Lying broken on the sharp stone I’d be inundated. No one would find me. Hypothermia would set in and I’d freeze to death in a Mediterranean climate. Then I foresaw my tombstone. It read “Here lies Eric… He fancied himself as a man of the outdoors… I guess not.”

A loud cry broke my train of thought. Up the mountain, a hundred feet or so, a raven perched on a wobbly treetop. I froze in my tracks and watched it struggle against the wind, clinging to the high branch with its bare black feet. I never paid too much attention to literary omens, but I sure as hell knew what a raven meant.

In a small attempt at foresight, I began looking for areas to take refuge. Soon I discovered a cave around 3 feet high. It had a solid roof and was deep enough to provide suitable shelter for a Croatian mountain woman and me (the more inspiring fantasy of the day). I constructed an oversized arrow out of logs pointing to my cave. Surely I’d see this while stumbling down the mountain through sheets of blinding rain.

Then, only 150 feet later, I came across a mountain hut. What an upgrade! I pulled back the latch and opened the creaky wooden door (to my great relief, no monsters). There was a table, an old stove, a wall clock stuck at 6:37, and a variety of material either left out of kindness or necessity. I took stock of my supplies with unmatched excitement. Wow, a half-quart of vinegar, condensed milk, a pack of instant coffee, hard molded bread and onions – yes, four fresh white onions! I would survive off this and rain water for weeks, given the opportunity. The logical choice here was to set up shop, make a fire and maybe climb the ladder into the creepy attic – anything that prevented myself from continuing up the mountain into recognized danger. However, I had already used up all my logic building that arrow made of logs… and I had a schedule to keep if I was going make the summit.

I left the cabin and reached the final saddle in the ridgeline, which offered a panoramic view. To the west was an island-strewn sea. To the south were more crests of craggy, bone-gray rock. To the east was Bosnia. And to the north was the source of my misguided ambition: Veliki Kabal.

The ridge I was soon to climb

The final route to the peak was along a perilous ridge. Vegetation all but vanished, and the path became a cruel game of connect the dots up the jagged limestone slope. Racing upwards, I scrambled over sharp rocks, wide gaps and deep fishers. Then the rain came. I watched in horror, as the rocks under hand and foot became lightly spotted and then uniformly covered in water. Now, every other step was followed by a sobering slip*.

The raindrops grew larger and mixed with my sweat until my entire t-shirt was soaked through. My visibility was cut down to tens of feet as I climbed up through a cloud. I could only see the next ridge of wet stone immediately before me. Not quite panicking, but growing more desperate to make the peak, I quickened my pace. At one point I leapt across a small ravine over the tops of stunted dead oak trees and jagged rocks. Landing on a tilted flat rock on the other side, I lost all traction and slid backwards into a bush. I remained in its thorny embrace while panting and swearing to never do something as foolish again when the clouds broke and the rain ceased. Then I saw it. Looking straight ahead, no more than thirty feet away, was the summit of V. Kabal. It had to be the top; there was a large cross on it.

It’s a rare occasion in life when stupidity is rewarded so greatly. Yet, as I stood on top of that mountain, scanning every inch of the horizon, I knew it was that kind of occasions. I could see the multitudes of islands, big and small, floating on a far off glinting sea. The neighboring mountains, though dark and rain-battered, stood out from the stormy skies. Far below them were wide valleys cut with tiny roads connecting old villages. Then I looked down upon Split and wondered how 200,000 people could fit into an area I could crush between my thumb and forefinger. Somewhere down there, amongst the distant grid of tan buildings, was Andrew, probably eating pizza.

After minutes of idle gazing and reflection, I began shivering. Then, as if on cue, the sleet hit. A mixture of ice and rain pelted my body as I surveyed the sea and eye-level clouds one last time. Feeling both accomplished and stupid, I grabbed my gear and turned back.

As unfair as it may be, I survived. I didn’t even hurt myself. I know, what a pity. Although the way down proved as frightening as I had imagined, I used greater caution and took my time. By the time I made it to the cabin, the rain stopped and the skies cleared to the west. And as I hiked back to the village, the trees lit up with autumn color, the sea sparkled with sunlight and little forest animals walked alongside me while I whistled (I’m just kidding, I can’t whistle).

I reached Sitno Gornje in time to catch the evening bus back to Split. A group of elderly villagers formed at a cautious distance from the oddly dressed stranger. As if on a dare, one man approached me and began speaking the native tongue. Then he pointed down to my damp hiking shorts and tattered shoes before looking back up at me. “Yes, I’m a dumbass.” I explained. Somehow, I think he understood this. We exchanged smiles and nods and then got on the bus.

*According to the infallible information source that is wikipedia: In April 2009 speleologists discovered human remains in pits on Veliki Kabal, originally thought to be victims of the Yugoslav Partisan from World War II. The victims were later revealed to have been from the post-war period. A police investigation was launched. (My personal theory is the mountain people got them, either way, it’s humbling to know not everyone makes it off that peak.)

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing

Posted in Travel Tales, World Travels | 3 Comments