Finding My Way – part 1

Oh, to still have all my hair!
Prague ca. 1999

I’m a wee bit scared. Anxiety attacks at night, even. After a few months of daydreaming and mulling things over, a good friend of mine, Mitch, has finally talked me into doing a long-distance hike. He has experience at these things, which I am grateful for, and I am well in need of a chance to disconnect from the Internet, TV, computer … and just life. Unplug. Not spiritually … just to remember the outdoors … and to travel again. It has been a long, dry spell (or wet spell, as things are in reality in Central Europe during winter). That is not what keeps me from a restful sleep, though. Far from it. It’s not the 509 km that the upcoming trek entails. This is the Lycian Way in Turkey! Planned out in 1999 and now a well-marked trail for both the hearty and those that get their luggage shipped daily from refuge to refuge by bus whilst they meander unencumbered with local guides. It’s not the wild camping that we plan to do or even the possibility of scorpions stinging me in the nards as I crouch for a wilderness poo. This route has the possibility for accommodation, food and water throughout 85 % of its length along the Mediterranean coastline. What churns the blood through my veins with a pressure bordering on the same degree as to require Scotty from Star Trek to scream: “She canny take ne more, Captain! She’s gonny blow!!” are the ramifications of the daily grind when I return … or, should I say, the damage that the grind could do to me whilst I am away. I may be removing myself from the machine, but the pistons and gears will stay in perpetual motion no matter what I may do.

You see, I, like many others, am self-employed; doing what I have to do to get by in this life abroad. I could have done the office life … the 9-5 … I had that before. But there was always something missing, and I never knew about that until I wandered beyond the confines of the US of A and stayed at my first non-YHA hostel back in 1995. The Inverness Student Hotel in Inverness, Scotland was that defining moment, for better of for worse, that altered the fabric of space and time for me (ok … it wasn’t that religious of an experience, but it did start the process of opening my eyes to a larger world). Here were people enjoying the life of a transient. No one place to call home; no four walls of a cubicle to ensnare them. Those working at the hostel were Australian or Canadian; people who had left behind the comfort of their families and bed and the opportunity to earn a decent wage with health care and social security for a low-paying, temporary job on the move. This is what interested me! How do they do this? Why? And then, as the years went by, and as the stupid mistakes I made taught me a lesson or two piled up, I found something else of interest: people were damned interesting! I loved the sights, tastes and tough-love embrace of Scotland, and in those first few years, Ireland, Germany, France and Holland kept my enthusiasm as erect as a porn star being delicately tended to by a skilled ‘fluffer’ … but … I couldn’t get enough of the mass of interesting live bodies that filled all these landscapes and architectural structures never seen before in the likes of East Coast America. Here were people that were only as distantly removed as the individual states in America, but from one border to the next, they had completely contrasting lives, food, drink, buildings and outlooks. At that time, before the EURO came into force, every country had their own currency … and as for languages, well, Czech is not German … for fuck’s sake, some people would say that Scottish isn’t even listed as being remotely English (especially at a West Highland pub after a few drinks)! In the US, we Southerners may speak a bit slower than our northern brothers, but it is close enough to be understood a majority of the time. Our big difference is supermarkets … Piggly Wiggly in the South, Wegmans in the North. Outside of this and the speed and manner of which we say the same words … not much else that is that major. I was in awe of Europe and this new, wider world I had entered, and I wanted nothing more than to stay and see … to experience more. So I adapted, became a chameleon … a jack of all trades. There was no other choice. I watched other North American travellers scurrying about with their daddy’s credit card and their idea of: “Hey, my Eurail Pass put me into Berlin one night and then out to Paris the next. That’s two ‘countries’ I have explored!” Australians were slightly better, though, being able to work legally in the UK for a certain amount of time and getting the chance to get involved in the culture to a larger degree, but I did notice an alarmingly large portion of them moving to places like Edinburgh and then surrounding themselves with other Australians at Aussie pubs watching Aussie cricket or rugby matches every chance they could get or having friends post them care packages of Tim Tams and Vegemite (which I fell in love with and stole every chance I could get … nothing beats a morning breakfast of toasted bread covered in butter and salty yeast spread, followed by a coffee slurped through a melting chocolate biscuit). They moved countries, but not their surroundings. Of course this is a major generalisation, and there are some grand exceptions to the rule, but you will notice this more often than you care to.

If I wanted to learn something more than just the prices of beer and where to go for an overly-taken photo, I needed to stay in a country longer than one night surrounded by other travellers staking their claim to a new country via a vomit-inducing hangover or sexual conquest due to lack of inhibitions because the world back home would never know of your ‘summer of love’. This is not to say I did not enjoy a night out with kindred spirits nor to say that I did not try my best to score with the flirtatiously drunken university girl (whom I usually lost out to a Scotsman for, with his damned “Alrigh, luv … you look fookin’ gorgeous, you do”, spoken in a broad Glaswegian accent. The underpants just melted off many a slightly tipsy Canadian or American lassie with that ‘oh, so romantic’ line, for some reason). The question remained: How to stay in Europe longer than my rapidly decreasing credit card limit and limited stay US passport would allow me? Scrubbing toilets and making beds at hostels in exchange for a bunk in the staff quarters and some food helped staunch the bleeding of cash, but I was still nowhere near knowing what made the locals tick (or mutter, or whinge and moan). Then, whilst hitching through Germany and coming to the end of my funds, I ran into a fellow Yank, who suggested we make a last weekend in Prague before succumbing to the real world of jobs and finances once more. Luck would have it that the hostel in Prague needed bed-makers for the next two weeks … so my weekend was extended in a new country. Something magical happened next. Germany was a struggle for me. I enjoyed the sights and meeting some new friends, but the language has never been for me. Not only is “Ich liebe dich” just the complete opposite of sensual (apologies to all my German-speaking friends), but staunch German regulations had no place for a transient American looking for “black work” and getting paid “under the table”. But after I was in Czech Republic a few days, people noticed I could pronounce this new-to-me Slavic language without sounding atrociously like most Hollywood actors portraying the stereotypical, evil Soviet killer (Da, Ameerican capitoolist peeg … pree-pair to dye. Ok, comrades … shoot heem!). And the history was so unlike anything I had ever even remotely heard about in our Mississippi high school history classes, which usually amounted to one brief week of studying about the Nazi blitz into Poland and the Soviets taking control, after good ol’ Uncle Sam saved the day, of course, and wanting to destroy our democratic way of life … that was as close to Central Europe as it ever got for us! It was heroin for me … and I wanted more. My drug buddy came in the form of an Australian girl working at the hostel with me; she had discovered a connection in the form of the Czech Republic’s desperation for native speakers of English … and even better for them if they didn’t care about earning anything more than cheap wine and potent plum brandy. As I was constantly (and still am) without cash anyway, and as I discovered I didn’t have to do this new profession only in Prague, I became a teacher of English conversation to kids in a small city in the east of the country called Uherské Hradiště. Though it took me over a month just to learn how to say the name of my new abode, I was granted a working visa and was left in charge of the language skills of budding minds … with a profession I had no clue about, save that I used to get decent marks in English in my school days. But I was in … and a new path had presented itself.

To be continued …