Monday, October 14, 2013

A Failed Attempt to Camp in the Wild

I'm sure one day it was a nice, beautiful country hotel

Okay, I have to admit that I’ve only ever free camped once! I know, ridiculous, because so many tour cyclists do it, yet, for some reason, I still haven’t.  The only time I camped in the wild was in Corsica, when I desperately tried to find a hotel or camping in a small town, but since it was off-season, I had no luck.  There was one hotel open but they wanted 60 euro, so camping in the wild was my only option.  I don’t even know if you can call it wild camping because I ended up behind a closed hotel, maybe 10m off the beaten track.  I couldn’t sleep well that night with all the noises I heard, I spooked myself out and thought everyone was out to get me.  In the morning I woke to rain, and I figured it was my punishment for camping in the wild!  I don’t know why, exactly, but I feel guilty not paying for a campsite.

There is something that entices me about a hot shower at the end of the day and cleaning up properly, whether it be at a camping or a hostel.  I like feeling clean and refreshed after riding my bike for 6 hours.  I have plenty of baby wipes, and I’m not bad at sponges bathes, but I have to admit, camping in the wild is a bit out of my comfort zone.  Not to mention I could probably spook myself out easily with all the noises at night and not sleeping much thinking someone will find me. If I were with someone else, I don’t think I’d think twice about camping in the wild, but alone, I tend to be more cautious.

Last night, I has the opportunity to free camp, but I miserably failed!  I knew I was going to be in an area with limited accommodations.  I had 205 km to ride in two days, no big deal for me, basically, it meant two days of a 100 km.  The complication was the fact that I was riding through a Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia and for 40km there weren’t very many services, and the last town before entering the park was 70km into my day, too little to do in one day, making too many km for the following.  I started the day, knowing that I would have a difficult time finding a proper place to spend the night,  but I proceeded with the route as a stubborn person would do, determined I would find something.  In the back of my mind, however, I was preparing myself for camping in the wild.  In fact at my lunch stop, 70 km into my day, I went to the grocery store and picked up some food for the evening just in case.  I also asked a few people in this local village if there were proper campsites or hotels and they recommended a beautiful hotel, called Hotel Tutto, 20 km up the road. 

By their description, Hotel Tutto sounded like a luxurious resort, and I knew it was going to be out of my price range.  However, for the next 20 km, I toyed with the idea of “treating myself” to the expensive hotel, after all, tomorrow was my birthday and I needed to celebrate in style in Macedonia.  While pedaling, I was also looking for campsites, trying to see if there were any good places off the road and well hidden.  However, the road followed a river and there wasn’t much of a bank to use for camping.  I was hopeful however, that in the same town of Hotel Tutto, there would be a cheaper alternative, and that kept me motivated while pedaling.  Soon, I saw the sign for Hotel Tutto and I was excited, knowing that I was close.  I had a pretty long day, the day before, coming into Macedonia, and I was ready to call it a day.  However, at the same time, I also had to go pee, which became a challenge, because there were hardly any hidden spots for me.  My focus all of a sudden shifted from finding the hotel to going to the bathroom and that is where I went wrong.  I found a place to go to the bathroom, but I was so fixated on that, I missed the sign advertising the turn-off for the hotel.  Of course I didn’t realize that at the time and kept pedaling excited to be within a few km of my destination.  A few km turned into 5, then 10, and no Hotel Tutto, and suddenly I realized I had passed it, but didn’t want to turn back. 

Ideas for passing the night started rushing through my head and as it was getting dark, I realized, that this really was going to be my night to camp in the wild.  However, just then, I saw what I thought was a bar, and a few men sitting outside.  I asked them if they knew of a hotel close by.  Basically the extent of my ability to communicate is saying a word in English that I think is universal and raising my voice a bit, to make it a question.  If I get desperate, I can draw pictures or make hand gestures, but in this case, the word hotel, in a high pitched voice worked.  They were my saviors, and told me there was one up the road, only about 3 km ahead.  I was saved!!!! How could I be so lucky???  I started to pedal faster, fixated on my bike computer so that I didn’t miss the hotel this time. 

A little over 3 km, some sort of national park monument and a decrepit hotel appeared, that unfortunately looked closed.  There was an old man out on the balcony and he saw me roll up.  I asked him if he had rooms and all he replied was “No water, no electricity.”  So I started pantomiming a tent, trying to ask him if I could just pitch my tent behind the run down building.  This is probably where I went wrong, because I should have just pedaled on and found a place to pitch it, but I thought I would be “safer” by his old hotel.  At this point he came downstairs and we tried so desperately to understand each other.  He told me there was another hotel at a turn-off 8 km up the road, uphill, and I told him I couldn’t pedal any farther and explained I had already rode 105 km.  He kept saying “no tent” even when I showed him mine, he just kept saying no!

This is when the story gets good.  He brought me in the hotel, which of course didn’t have water or electricity, but really didn’t have much of anything.  It had probably been closed for about 20 years and was completely run down inside.  Not to mention it was damp, cold, and dark!  He showed me what I thought was his room and the two individual beds. He had some food scattered on the table, his clothes piled up over a chair, and a ton of blankets on top of the two beds.  He had everything he needed to get by here in this tiny room and by his gestures; he wanted me to sleep in that room with him!  I trusted him and thought he was harmless, but there was no way on earth I was going to share that hotel room with him!   The challenge became trying to make him understand I wanted my own space to sleep, a floor, another room, anywhere, as long as I had a bit of privacy.  I showed him the conference room we’d passed on the stairs and made a tent gesture with my hands and asked if I could set myself up in there.  He was so concerned I’d be cold and he brought me back to his room again.

You always look for a safe place to park your bike, here you have it!

Again, I should have hopped back on my bike, but I was that incredibly tired, not even I could pedal another 7 km down the road.  Not to mention, it had become dark outside.  The old man and I communicated with hands and simple words, and I finally got him to understand that “you” meant that room is for you, and “me”, pointing to a room next door for me.  He thought I was crazy for wanting to sleep in a different room and was really worried I would be too cold, especially since I still had on my tank top and bike shorts from riding.  Finally I showed him my sleeping bag and gave him a thumbs up and that basically worked.

Looking on the bright side of things, with no electricity, no water, no nothing, I’d be in bed extremely early, which I so desperately needed in order to catch up on rest.  My cold sponge bath was divine, I put on some warm clothes and went to get the food I had bought for dinner.  I tried to offer some to the old man, who was now changed into his pajamas, but he passed.  However, he insisted that I eat in his room, and offered me some of his food.  He had milk and cheese, open and out, little peppers all over the counter, some tomatoes, a real eclectic mix of food items to eat, which I also passed on. While I sat there and ate my picnic dinner, he lit up a cigarette, which made me relieved I didn’t have to share his room.  We tried to have a bit of conversation and I named the countries and cities I had been to recently and asked his where he was from and that was about the extent of our chatting! 

It’s now 8pm, and I am back in my room.  Don’t worry, my door is locked.  I’ve got the biggest smile on my face thinking,….if you could just see me now here in this decrepit hotel room! Tomorrow morning when I wake up, I’ll be 34 and I can guarantee you I will never forget the start to my 34th birthday!!  Tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping at the house of my host from my next school visit, and worse off, I won’t be!  Curious enough, today, I trying to make a goal or two for myself as I turn a year older and I was thinking that I really need to make sure I’m in bed at a decent hour with all my cycling.  It looks like I’m off to a good start! 

My hotel room
I hesitate to post pictures of this hotel because I am embarrassed and worried that you might be worried for me.  But again, everything is relative in this world and if you have an optimistic outlook, then it’s all manageable. I so wish I had a picture of the old man in his blue synthetic pijamas, but poor guy was still sleeping when I left this morning!  Not to worry,  I’ve learned my lesson yet again: If you are going to wild camp, don’t politely ask if you can stick your tent on someone’s property!

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