I’ve realised something about myself – it’s always been there, in the times when I’m emotional or drunk, but in the long days of walking when I’m tired and hungry I can see that it comes very much to the fore. Sometimes I can be a bit…how can I put this…immediate. That’s the way it feels. Maybe I’m being too gentle there, bossy would be an interpretation but it’s not always that, angry would be another but it’s not always like that either. Tired of the niceties of social interaction and unable to perform them, that would be a third way of putting it. Perhaps my friends and family would be able to chime in with some appropriate yet gentle descriptions in this moment.
One such moment happened in the last town, it had been a long day of roadwalking and the layout of this town was making my day even longer – one street two miles long and I seemed to be coming to the end of it with still no hotel. I tried asking a passer-by but she was completely unable to understand the two words of Ukrainian that work elsewhere so often. ‘Where is the hotel?’ she just looked at me and shrugged, told me she didn’t understand. The street was empty once she walked away, I really didn’t want to walk any further if I’d missed the hotel already, ahead was some kind of industrial works and I couldn’t believe the hotel would be past that. I decided to walk into an official administrative building and ask there. There was no one in the lobby and I was considering which of the closed doors to try when in walked a woman, smartly dressed. ‘Where is the hotel?’ ‘This is not a hotel.’ she replied. ‘I know this isn’ t a hotel but I can’t find the hotel and I’d really like some directions so I can put this rucksack down and get in the bloody shower’ I was unable to say. ‘Yes, I don’t know where the hotel is’ She said something I didn’t understand and I told her ‘I don’ t understand’ We glared at each other in mutual irritation. I pointed at the door and made motions with my hands ‘hotel. Toda? or Toda?’ pointing in either direction down the street. ‘Toda’ she said, pointing towards the industrial works. ‘Dobre’ ‘good’ I said, turning away from her, remembering at the last moment as I pushed the door open to say thank you.
That was an irritable moment, I realise later on once I’ve refreshed myself and calmed down from the annoyance I didn’t realise I was experiencing.
Last night was not an irritable moment, more that I’d come to the end of my energy and was unable to do anything else.
I started the day high up at the side of a track that was winding its way down a steep hillside where horses ran loose and haystacks clustered. I’d climbed my first mountain the day before, wound my way up from the town, starting in a valley that left the flat road and following up into a pine forest where wetness dripped and water ran over stone in a way that reminded me of home. Here were the steep sides valleys of my own country, here the winding rising tracks. But I was going higher than I ever would in Wales, and there were no names I recognised, no long known land shapes. A large animal ran away from the noise of me, I only heard the noise of it, crashing away from the track below me where the land dropped steeply. Was that a bear? I wondered, then told myself not to be so dramatic. A stray dog or wild pig was an equally chance occurrence. I reached the top of the mountain, coming through a pass where a family pulled trees from the forest, the woman attaching a line to the trunk where the man sat in the lorry cab and operated the machinery, yelling at her out of the window. A young boy watched. The lorry pulled a 100ft of pine out of the hill, it just kept coming and coming, like a goods train. Once up to the next rise I could see the next mountain ahead of me, 1240m this time, but first I needed to drop down into the valley and find the road back up to it. I couldn’t crash through the forest, I’ve learnt my lesson about turning onto wild territory many years past.
I made the wrong choice, ending up on a road north that never seemed to turn west towards the mountain, just wound its way down and down, following the river towards the road. I slept there, more deeply than in the hotel the night before, no shining phone to keep me unnaturally awake. The next day, all I could do was walk down towards the road, one mountain climbed and one missed. I would walk the asphalt all day until I could turn away and climb one more mountain before the next town. I came to my turning almost at the end of the day, a long day on a long road but finally, one hour from sunset, came the valley I wanted. I looked at the map and the curves of the hillside, here was where I needed to go, but there wasn’t a bridge to the road that seemed to be marked on the other side of the river. Eventually one came, but a footbridge not a car bridge, steep hill on the other side of the river, valley head rising away from me. I crossed the river and climbed a small track that led away up the hill, it definitely wasn’t a main track but it was the only one that led away from the river. As I followed it I came to a house and the track led directly into the driveway, there didn’t seem to be any other way through. I stood and considered, could I just walk through someone’s yard? That didn’t feel right. Up above me about 20m away sat two men on a bench. Fuck it, I thought, I’m going to ask for directions. They watched me in silence as I puffed up the steep rise towards them. When I reached the bench I pulled out my maps and tried to ask them whether I was in the right place for the track across the mountain. But it didn’t seem to work. One guy was talkative but as he looked at the maps I realised he was squinting his eyes, like he needed glasses he wasn’t wearing. The other didn’t say anything. I tried to point to the track marked on the large-scale map, tell them I wanted to follow this to Verkovyna, using my few Ukrainian words. I switched to the more detailed one. The talkative guy told me that I needed to go back to the road, walk 3km up and then cross the river. I stared in disbelief, how could I keep going so badly wrong? The sun had set and I couldn’t go back down the hill and across the river to all the houses with fenced off yards and walk for who knows how long until I found a place to camp, light disappearing from the sky all the while. There was a flat place here, at the top of this rise overlooking the river by the bench. Fuck it, I thought, and this is where the tired immediacy come in. ‘Can I camp here?’ I asked, knowing I was being strange but too tired to care. ‘Yes’ they said. ‘Whose house is this?’ It turned out to be the quiet one’s house. ‘I know this is strange, I’m sorry. I am tired and I need to stop walking’ The talkative guy left and I was left with the one who didn’t speak, except to tell me his name was Mische. I felt so aware of being this crazy, lost, sweaty tourist who just barged into a quiet garden and invited herself to stay but I was just too tired to care. Once I established that he wasn’t going to ask me any questions and I’d checked again that it was OK to camp here then I just got on with putting up my tent. He smoked silently, squatted on his heels and watched the valley. Tent up, bed made and I could relax. I made some food at the bench, opened my salami, mixed tomato paste into mashed potato. He offered me a cup of tea and I accepted, watched him walk into the nearby building, light come on in the kitchen. He came back and sat with me while I ate. I asked him one question ‘were you born here?’ ‘Yes’ he said. ‘It’s beautiful’.
A child came up and went to look in the tent, until Mische stopped him. ‘my son’ he said and he motioned to show me that he had two sons, one small and one big. I was shocked, I’d thought he was so much younger than me, too young to have big sons.
But then I realised it’s not he who is young but I who am old, older than people who have grown up children.
Food eaten it was time to sleep, ‘thank you’ I said. He collected the cup and went to his house. I was wakeful here, uncertain of exactly how the night might go. A few people passed the tent quite close, flicking torches, and I realised that I might not be in a private garden but maybe in a walkway.
After a couple of hours a dog came and barked at the valley, really close to my tent. I lay there, thinking that I might not get very much sleep that night. Then came the shadow of a human. ‘Ursula’ ‘Yes, is that Mische?’ ‘Yes. Do you want to sleep in the house? Alone’ ‘Yes please’ Sure. Once I’ve taken the decision to get random and sleep in some guys garden, all I can do is follow my nose and say yes to the results of my actions. He led me to a smaller house next to his, his mother’s, apparently. There was no kitchen, just a room with a chair and a stove in it, then a bedroom beyond, a way for generations to share the same land and still give private space. She needs to work in the morning, said Mische, and he went to light the stove. No, no, it’s ok, I said. I just wanted to go straight to sleep, it was only 8pm but I was tired. We kept laughing at each other, embarrassed laughing, at how ridiculous this was that I’d just turn up in this way and be such a weird foreigner. He left the room and I got straight into bed and turned the light off. But him and his mother were back within 10 minutes and I got up to sit on the stool, rubbing my eyes while they changed the bed. Mische had probably just explained to me that he was going to do this and I hadn’t understood. I heard him laughing again as he closed the door. I felt strange about leaving my belongings in the tent and got up one more time to bring some of them inside. I left the food outside which was a fatal mistake because when I went out to the tent in the morning a cat had chewed through the netting of the inner tent in an attempt to reach the delicious salami inside. Gah, it was only a few small holes but I am now permeable to mosquitoes and other small biting things – I’ll have to spend some time sewing them up on my next rest day.
Mische brought me breakfast – coffee and pancakes – his mother came into the room to gather things to go to work. He explained that he had no work here, he had to go into Europe for work, a common situation for many young Ukrainians, there simply are no jobs here. What did he do? Builder, he said, and pointed to some boxes of tiles in the next room.
I packed everything up while he watched, rolling my bags and packing everything into the right places. Finally the wet tent, which I wiped down to get rid of the worst then rolled up. I got out my maps again, unwilling to believe that this valley didn’t lead to the mountain and this time I used the right words. I said the name of the mountain and Mische nodded, pointed upwards, I was here on the right path, I just hadn’t found the right way to go through the houses. What a relief, I wasn’t lost at all, I was on my way to climb the third mountain. Mische told me about Hoverla, the 2000m peak I’m heading for next, told me that the view is beautiful but that it’s dangerous, many tourists get lost and this is winter, people die. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t worried, that I wouldn’t get lost but here I was having turned up at his house, lost and confused at the base of a peak half the size. He warned me that there are no houses at the top of Hoverla like there are here. I joked that he should be my mountain guide, no way, he laughed, but then he said he’d show me the way to the path to the top of this mountain. We wound between the houses, taking a route that I never would have taken myself, crossing fences, going past front doors. There didn’t seem to be any cars here, just paths winding between houses, human width. We passed people and said hello, Mische wouldn’t stop for the amused conversations about who I was, just laughed awkwardly and carried on walking. I was so grateful for his patience at my forcing myself into his morning. Eventually, once I was out of breath and sweating, stopping to take off a layer and tie my hair up while Mische paced ahead of me in his plastic slip on sandals, casually smoking a fag, we reached a wider track and he indicated that this was where he would leave me. He drew a map on the ground, told me I should follow the road up and eventually curve around to the left. I decided to let the last awkward action flow free and asked if I could take his picture, like the idiot tourist that I am. He acquiesced, and I left him with heartfelt thank yous.
I walked upwards for an hour, following the track higher and higher. I could see the peak ahead, kept checking against the map the way the path should take in relation to it. I was almost there when the track went wrong. I could hear machinery ahead and realised that the track had been widened for forestry work, that the left curve I needed to take might be a lot smaller. Eventually a left turn came, more of a path than a track but still, it led upwards and I followed it through the pine trees. I came out almost at the head of the valley and could see the few houses at the foot of the peak ahead of me. But closer to me was a house and I couldn’t see a way around it. If I wanted to avoid the house without climbing fences then I’d have to drop steeply down the hill and I didn’t want to lose altitude. I decided to walk towards the house and ask if I could pass in front of it, as Mische had done throughout his neighbourhood. A woman was there, in front of the house, a cabin really, wooden, with a verandah running the length of the building.
I called to her, asked if it was OK to enter and whether I could walk ahead. She beckoned me in and we had a short conversation about where to walk. She told me the the path to the top was tree blocked and difficult, that I should walk straight ahead and down into the next valley. It was the kind of advice that I would ignore as soon as I left her company and carry on with my original plan – I don’t always listen when people advise me that something is difficult. I was about to leave when she asked if I’d like a coffee. I said yes please and she went inside, before beckoning me in too. A young boy, about 7, flitted about, crawling under tables. An older one, about 20, came in to advise her on how to use Google Translate, before leaving again. This was a poor house, where the kitchen and the bedroom are the same room, where 4 beds are crammed together. I felt honoured to be invited inside. Maria told me she was 42, that she had 5 sons and 1 daughter, that they all lived at home except for the daughter who had married out at 16. She laid out coffee, spread bread with butter, put a plate of cheese and meat at my elbow then sat comfortably close on my other side so we could pass the phone between us. I told her that I was 38, we smiled at the similar age, and that I had no children and no man. That I was walking across Europe and that it was an adventure. A painful adventure? she joked and I laughed, yes yes, painful legs! She asked why no children and I pointed to my groin and said the word Kaput.
Technically I can still have children, but it’s not so easy to explain my medical history to a stranger; that I only have part of one ovary left inside my body, that I’m at risk of an early menopause, that I have a cyst that is still being monitored to check it’s not a tumour in disguise, plus the fact that I haven’t met a man who wants to give me children, plus the fact that I spent 7 key years from age 31-38 either having cancer or recovering from it or following through on a decision to walk thousands of miles away from home, and even if all that hadn’t happened I’m not even certain that I want to have children or that I’m capable of being a decent parent or that we should even be populating the earth with yet more humans anyway. So I just point at my groin and say Kaput and even though it’s kind of a lie it’s enough of the truth that I don’t feel guilty about telling it.
‘No children means I can leave home and am free to travel’ I say into the phone. Communicating this way means we keep our statements clean and simple. ‘Where is your man?’ I ask. She has the feel of a single mother about her. ‘He’ s out on the hill’ she says. ‘He’s a bad man’ and she flicks her throat to indicate being drunk. ‘How is it that Ukrainian men are so poor and they still have enough money for alcohol?’ I ask. She laughs sadly, tells me he is no good. I look at her and ask a difficult question – ‘is there violence in this house?’ ‘Yes, from him’ I sit there in silence for a while, notice that she is deleting the record of our conversation from the phone, leaving no replies to be read later. I rub her arm to show that I understand. We talk about what she can do, I ask if she can leave. ‘This is my house’ she says. There is no other home to go to, both her parents have died of cancer and her brother is ‘starving of poverty’. This is probably the house she grew up in. I throw him out and he comes back, she says. She goes to the police and they do nothing – alcoholism is a too common story here. ‘He is jealous’ she says. ‘Of you?’ ‘Yes’ and she taps the side of her head, flicks her throat again to tell me that when someone drinks the sense leaves their head, that when abuse happens everything becomes twisted, lies become truth, all goes upside down, the person who is supposed to love you does you harm. I want to cry but all my tears will do is show my weakness in the face of her problems. ‘You are stuck’ I say. ‘Yes.’ We talk for an hour, back and forth, I eat her bread and cheese and she gives me two small chocolates. She gives me a bag of dried mushrooms and a herbal tea mix she has made herself – she sells these on the Internet for income, a friend in Italy helps her to do it.
I decide I want to give her some money. It’s a useless thing, according to the proverb – give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, give him a net and he will eat for life. I can’t give this woman a net – the government should provide one. I can’t give her the strength to get rid of her husband, I can’t give her a supportive community or a women’s aid charity, or a police force that will take domestic violence seriously, or courts that will pursue prosecutions. All I can do is give her secret money, that she can keep to herself, that her husband doesn’t know about and can’t take from her. I have no power to do anything else.
It’s hard to give someone money, it makes us unequal, I am no longer a guest but a benefactor and that is different. I also need to be careful of being a saviour, of handing out my first world riches and seeing it as making me a good person, a solver of problems, a person with the answers. I am aware of all this and I don’t care, I just want to make Maria’s life better and this is the only way I can do it in this moment, before I walk away forever.
So I shove her a bundle of hryvnia, about 25 quid. Enough for 20 pairs of shoes, or 90 loaves of bread. Enough for her to feed her 5 children for a month, maybe 2.
It’s a hard thing to do between us and makes it awkward. She tells me that she meant the mushrooms and tea as a gift, that she doesn’t know how to thank me for this, doesn’t know what to do. We are walking by this point, we have left the house and she is showing me the way to the top of the pass, we still pass the phone between us, talking and reading. I tell her that it is the only thing I have to give her, that I want to help make her life better and this is all I have. ‘I got married at 16’ , she says ‘and now here I am with a failed life, a bad marriage and nothing to show for it but a bunch of kids. I envy a woman who can live without a man’. She shows me photos of her daughters wedding, 16 too and married to a man of 40. I ask if that’s ok and she twists her face to say not really. ‘Is it a good marriage?’ ‘For now’ she replies ‘so far’ ‘Your experience has made you a cynic’ I joke. ‘Maybe’. ‘Maybe mine has too and that’s why I have no man’. We laugh again. I look at her daughter, her beauty and her narrow hips, so many dreams at 16, and no experience with which to armour herself.
We stop at the top of the hill, Maria tells me that I should go down into the valley and I decide to agree, this is not the place to tell her that I will climb the mountain anyway. I will descend to the road and it means I’ll have a longer day of road walking and that I’ll miss the mountain summit but it doesn’t matter, this conversation is more important. We walk a short way down into the valley together, there is rustling of an animal in the woods – Maria very clearly pays attention to this noise. She’s not scared but is definitely wary. ‘A bear?’ I ask. ‘Yes’ So human and bear make neighbours in the Carpathians. We are only 20 or so miles from the Romanian border here, and it is in the Romanian Carpathians that live 60% of the brown bears of Europe. Not surprising that they are here too.
She passes me to a man who is heading down the hill, there is no place for an outpouring of emotion but we hug and kiss. ‘Udachi’ I tell her, ‘good luck’ ‘Thank you’ she replies.
Sometimes I feel lost, I don’t know where I’m going or whether I’m on the right path. Then something happens and I see that no direction can still be a good direction, that sometimes the path I’m on is the right one after all, whichever direction that happens to be facing.
I set out three days ago to climb three mountains and I have returned to the valley having climbed one and a half…..but I’m not going to call it a failure.