Tag Archives: Hitchiking

Home & Away Part 1

Is it me, or are the desire to travel and the desire to garden at odds?

The reason I ask is that I find myself faced with the quandary of wanting to travel and wanting to settle (literally cultivate a home and garden).

Inside me, the hunter/gather and farmer/settler archetypes coexist in uneasy, sometimes antagonistic relation.

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Me: the muddy boots of a permie (permaculture gardener) and the worn backpack of a bona-fide traveller. Eeck. A walking contradiction?

Not an ideal scenario, right?

Over the past few years I’ve attempted (with varying degrees of success) to harmonise my desire to travel with my desire to garden: I’ve gardened whilst dreaming of travel, and have even gardened whilst travelling, albeit in other peoples’ gardens (if the latter appeals to you I suggest you look into becoming a WWOOFer – a Willing Worker on Organic Farms).

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy - labors spent in service of anthers' garden

Me WWOOFing in Central Italy – labours spent in service of anothers’ garden

Although my heady months of WWOOFing during my overland odyssey from England to Australia in 2012-2013 were extraordinary and deeply rewarding, there was something that dissatisfied me, generally, about my experience:

I never stuck ’round long enough to reap what I had sewn.

The nature and manner of the type of travel in which I was engaged (long-term, multiple-country, terrestrial, low budget, low carbon) was such that no sooner had I settled down and begun to develop feelings for a place, than it was time to move on.

And on…

And on…

And on.

By threading one WWOOF to the next I finally made my way overland from England to Australia, via twenty-one countries. The entire journey took seventeen months to complete and is remembered as a series of falling in love with places, and then having to leave – learning gradually, and with distance, to let them go.

The good news, I discovered, is that as a species we’re admirably well-adapted to love broadly and widely, deeply and long. The understanding that I have cultivated over the course of my hybrid travel-gardening adventures is that humans are polyamorous in terms of their relationship to place: that they can belong to many places (and cultures) at once.

Mine and Richie’s beloved first-ever kitchen garden at The Patch, England

As I write, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I regard travelling and gardening as incongruous (and I admit, I haven’t decided outright that this is truly the case) is that gardening is something you do at home. Traveling, on the other hand is a practice you practice ‘away’ from home. Insofar as practices go, gardening and travelling share the characteristic of being place-specific. It just so happens that the places in which they occur are thoroughly incompatible, even opposite: home & away respectively. Continue reading

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Luck of the Irish

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I’ll tell you something you might not know about the Australian Outback – it’s peopled by young Irish! The subtle charm of saltbush and red earth does not account for the numbers in which they arrive: behind every counter, every laminate benchtop in every kitchen, pub, petrol station, cafe and caravan park between Darwin and Mt Isa there’s a Galway or Pipe lilt-a-lurking.

Whatever the Outback lacks in emerald green it makes up for in gold: the solid gold of a hard-earned wage – the kind it’s hard to come by in Ireland. Italians and French are drawn here too, for work, but not in the same numbers as the Irish – nowhere near.

At the Mataranka Caravan Park, at the end of a long day of hitchhiking, I inquire at reception about the cost of renting a tent pitch for the night: $36! It’s terrible news but pleasing nonetheless to hear it delivered in a running-stitch of tender Leinster tones! Battling to reconcile myself with parting with $36 for a patch of earth, I inquire whether management might have a spare tent they can throw into the bargain. To which she kindly responds, ‘No’.

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That night, lying under the stars, part-way-under a shared sleeping bag, with the sound of mob politics in the background, I ponder what it might be like, as a youth from an Irish village, to find yourself, suddenly,  in the Australian Outback. I feel baffled by what might draw someone this far across the earth to take up residence in a landscape only marginally less alien than the moon, to a culture as quixotic, contradictory and idiosyncratic as a pink bus called ‘Priscilla’. Surely it’s not just the money?

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On the second night of our hitch-hike across the Outback we’re saved by the kindness of the Irish. Tess, Mike and Lee are on a road trip that will take them from Sydney to Cairns. They’ve drawn up at the Barkly Homestead in their dusty blue station wagon and are happy enough to have their tents up, cans of beer in their hands and a good part of the driving behind them.

It’s cold. As they hug their coats closer about their shoulders their attention is drawn to the two weirdos (us!) who have wandered in off the road, under cover of darkness, and are spreading a layer of cardboard on the ground in order to shield themselves from the rising damp that would otherwise cost them a night of sleep.

‘We ha a tarpaulin if ya waaant it’, one of them offers, shouting over from the comfort of his canvas camping chair. He looks appalled to be witnessing our performance of voluntary impoverishment.

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Georgia to Kazakhstan in photos

For a full account of our adventures on the Georgian Military Road, and the rails, border towns and train compartments between Vladikavkaz (Russia) and Astana (Kazakhstan), see Richie’s blog.

Total distance travelled: 3,800 km

                    Total number of changes: 7

                                        Time taken: Four and a half days

                                                            Adventure Factor: High!

The Georgian Military Road: Tbilisi to Kazbegi

high places near the Jvari Pass, 2379m

the bumpy mashutka ride is worth it for the views

misty mountains

vintage transport in Kazbegi

rained-out hiking to the Gergeti Trinity Churth. Any m’rooms about?

ella-mental: rock, wind, ice and eagles!

Mt Kazbek (5,033m)

At the Border – Kazbegi to Vladikavkaz

praying for dear life

a loaded Lada – dropped at the Georgian/Russia border

thumbs out for a lift across the border – no pedestrians allowed

uninspired border architecture

on the Russian side of the border

Inside the Carriage – 4 nights on the rails

still life – snacks & instant noodle paraphernalia

samovar – our saviour

catching up on sleep

Russian sunset

steppe of western Kazakhstan

waiting for the train, Askaraiskaia

platform life, near to Volgograd

smoked fish, Russian speciality

The People – unexpected help arrives!

lift in a Lada from the border to Vladikavkaz

Sam and Dmitry, one of many guardian angels!

sharing food and photographs

a new Uzbek friend, inspired by a photograph of Australia

Richie meets a Kazakh geologist specialising in oil exploration

our new Uzbek friends scrutinising photos on their way home to Tashkent

‘the circle of bewilderment’: Nina and Sam encircled on the platform at Askaraiskaia

I wholeheartedly recommend this route east to China to anyone seeking an alternative to the Tran-Siberian or Silk Road-route through Iran and Pakistan – especially if you manage to pre-arrange visas in your home country (more on this in the next blog). Hello China, here we come!

ps. It’s snowing here in Astana. The coldest capital in the world!

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Balkan letter to a friend…

Dear Andreas

Transylvania is sweltering! Indian summers are all well and good when Jim Morrison is elegising, but in reality they wear a girl down. It’s borderline 40 degrees and not a drop of rain in sight. I was hoping the ‘murky forests’ you spoke of would be fruiting with wild mushrooms, but it’s not so. Perhaps in a few weeks or a month? Rain is predicted for tomorrow but I remain skeptical. I’m hoping for a cracking Queensland-fashion thunder storm to break the heat and rip its belly out. The leaves on the trees are talking about autumn, but nobody’s listening.

A solid 3 months since rain. The corn crop has withered in the fields and farmers have harvested hay only once, not twice, as they normally do. The hayricks are still standing. They lend the countryside a rustic sculptural elegance. Did you ever read The Worm Forgives the Plough? Don’t suppose there’s much cause for building hayricks in your line of work? But if there were, this would be the first place to look for advice. The apples here are small and tangy, there’s more than you can eat, but where’s the cider?

We passed the Carpathians on the train on wednesday. Splendid. Continue reading

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Venice: between heaven and hell

If the devil is Venetian, wears storm-trooper boots, black sunglasses and operates via Couch Surfing, then Roberto (alias) is his name.

Roberto was our ‘fall back’ option for accommodation in Venice.
“Call me,” he said in response to our Couch Surf request, “in case of emergency, if you get stuck, or if you really can’t find a room.”

Within a day and a half (and a lot of rain) of arriving in Italy the conditions that Roberto had described had indeed come to fruition: we were stuck, it was an emergency, and we couldn’t find a room (that we could afford).

“Who should call him, me or you?” I asked Richie.
“You do it. You’re the one who wrote to him.”

Despite having a rather fearsome profile on Couch Surfing (think Sid Vicious crossed with Che Guevara) Roberto was gracious about letting us stay. He met us at Venice’s St Lucia stazione and took us back via a circuitous route to a squatted university building where a ‘happening’ was underway. He introduced us to his friends and gave us a running commentary on the history of the building; its apotheosis as a squat, and the reasons why Venice’s grand buildings were being systematically sold off as luxury hotels.
“There’s more tourists here than residents. We’re outnumbered 3 million to 60,000,” he told us flatly.

After the ‘happening’ at the university we were frogmarched to a bar on the other side of town where an anarchic bunch of rabble were loitering alongside the canal, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music: more leather than the Fez tanneries and more dogs on leads than Miami beach.

It was not long before Jason wandered over and started talking to us… again. He’s joined us for drinks at the university, impressing us with his distinctive appearance (he wore what can only be described as a leather cape) and intriguing persona: part Ezra Pound, part Mick Dundee. His mother was Australian but he was born in Venice.

“Nice Irish accent,” Richie scoffed once Jason had excused himself to search out a cigarette.
“It’s no Irish, it’s Australian. Watch the pen. He’s got my pen. I bet you he’s going to pocket it. You can’t trust writers!”

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Hossin’ it to Venice

Richie and I have been known to attempt rash and zany things, especially whilst on the road. A whiff of adventure, a challenge, a dare, and we’re off, scheming of ways to reach B from A; testing the mettle of our spirits and the imperviousness of the soles of our hiking boots.

If they were made for walking, what’s the point in standing still?

It was during a particularly low moment during our stay in Barcelona that we decided to intercept Richie’s parents on their 18-day cruise of the Mediterranean. We were lonely and could do with a merry rendezvous. On the 14th of April Kay and Steve would be disembarking the Queen Victoria in Venice. Why not surprise them there, and spend a memorable 6 hours walking the streets; lagoon water lapping at our toes and the taste of gelato in our mouths.

Reaching Venice on the 14th left us with a window of 4 nights to get from Figueres (in the northeast Spain). We considered flying, then thought better of it. Why not hitch?

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‘Bye Bye’ Maroc – ‘Hola’ Espana

It took a massive effort of will to leave Marocco. We’d been there 8 weeks and had a hell of a time (in a good way!). We weren’t prepared for the strangeness of re-entering Europe.

By morning: Tanger.

By mid-afternoon: Algeciras.

Morocco.

Spain.

Two cultures with much in common (but world’s apart) separated by the narrowest stretch of water. We were flummoxed!

Europe posed new problems for us – like how to keep from munching through our meagre budget in a matter of weeks. A combination of Wwoofing, hitch-hiking and Couch Surfing was the key. Within the space of 2 days we’d tried all three of these money-saving/people-meeting techniques and were pleased with the results.

Bouncing along in the backseat of a Toowoomba couple’s mobile home we grew confident that we could overcome our Euro-dollar poverty (1st world problem!) without missing out on exciting new experiences and the odd ice cream or cold beer here and there.

In spite of our feelings of deep love and fealty to Morocco we opened ourselves up and let our new host culture do its work on us. Bull fighting colosseums, gelato, catholic fervour, flamenco fever, and gorgeous houses with fine balconies and timber shutters won us over.

This was not Morocco. This was something different. A different aesthetic. A new way of behaving. A different climate… a new opportunity. I christened myself anew: ‘Nina of Espana’ by bathing in the Mediterranean. It was bloody freezing!

It seems fitting to say ‘goodbye’ to Morocco and ‘hello’ to Spain with a flutter of photos. Can you spot the differences?

p.s Family and friends are on our minds every step of the way – we’re coping daily with homesickness and the desire for togetherness. We carry you with us at all time. Love you!

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