5 Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a thousand ways to cook zucchini

We got off the train in Koprivinca, Croatia almost three weeks ago and began searching the platform for our WWOOF host, Lela. “Don’t worry,” she had emailed us. “We’ll find you.”

Matt and I had assumed that the “we” she was referring to was she and her husband, and that they would toss us in the back of their pickup truck and drive us to their little family farm.

“We” turned out to be Lela and her puppy, Fela. And she did find us, and we loaded up in her mini van and she drove us to the farm that she’s spent the past eight years creating almost singlehandedly.

This one woman operation in the rural northern part of the country has a little bit of everything: two small orchards, a large personal garden, a crop of lavender for making oil, and a dozen other projects that are still in the works. In other words, far more than one woman can handle on her own– even someone as tough and hardworking as Lela.

Perhaps the most striking part of Lela’s land is the big, partially unfinished log cabin that she shares with her WWOOFers and her five (FIVE!) Rhodesian Ridgebacks. (Contrary to the name’s implications, a Rhodesian Ridgeback is a breed of dog, not a dragon. And consequently, the only Croatian we learned are dog commands. So if the words sit, stay, and come will get us anywhere, we’re all set.) The cabin is full of beautifully carved natural wooden features and is laid out according to some sort of Indian astrology that we don’t quite understand and that Lela doesn’t quite have the English to explain. The living area is mostly consumed by dog beds and crates, and the kitchen houses one of the two wood burning ovens and a stone sink the size of a small bathtub. A trap door in the ceiling of the living room leads to the second story loft where Matt and I have been sleeping during our stay. Off the loft is Lela’s bedroom, though she prefers to sleep downstairs surrounded by her dogs. The house runs on solar and wind power, so water and electricity are available but limited, especially on cloudy days.

We worked on various projects during our stay at the little farm, the most arduous of which was probably the enormous holes we dug in the clay-rich dirt during our first week here. Lela has a way of assigning tasks so that they seem small, like they’ll only take a couple of hours, and then before you know it you’ve been doing that one job for the better part of a week.

She asked me to clean up a few blackberry bushes in the yard, I spent a few hours on them, they looked happier and healthier and I assumed I was done with the clippers. The next thing I knew I’d spent three days grooming the wild thorny bushes all along the lane next to the farm and was covered in little pricks and scrapes (okay, and some berry juice).Then she asked us to clean about 30 of her recycled bricks to finish building a little wall, and that took Matt and me a morning and we thought we were finished. Four days later we were still sitting on the front porch scraping old cement, dirt and spiders off of the bricks, and the wall had grown to encompass the whole terrace and employed about 600 bricks. After that Lela asked me if I liked to paint, and I nodded enthusiastically as she handed me a can of wood stain and pointed me toward a few beams on the porch ceiling. Three days later I was still standing on top of a rickety ladder putting a second or third coat of paint on the ceiling, annoyed that I’d ruined two items from my limited wardrobe with the goopy stain, and wondering why the ceiling hadn’t been painted before it was, well, the ceiling. Additionally, Matt has mown grass, chopped wood, built a wall and been apprentice to the non-English speaking bricklayer. We’ve also taken part in 6 am dog walking sessions, helped to prepare meals and become expert dishwashers, cleaned indoors, weeded lavender, dug up dead trees, laid concrete and been wheelbarrow mechanics.

The great thing about doing manual labor in extreme heat for eight to ten hours a day is that you don’t have to give even a second thought to your caloric intake. So when Lela piles my plate a first, second and sometimes third time with her delicious vegetarian cooking, I don’t even feel bad when I repeatedly lick it clean.

Which brings me to the food. Lela is a trained and extremely well-practiced chef. She went to a culinary school, has cooked in many hotels, owned a restaurant for a while and still occasionally cooks at retreats and other gatherings. She uses primarily the vegetables from her garden and seems to make everything up as she goes along. For a typical meal, Matt and I spent at least an hour in the kitchen chopping up fresh vegetables while Lela points and stirs and continually amazes us with new dishes for us to try. It’s all unbelievably delicious and has been quite the culinary adventure for Matt and me. She’s made several hearty traditional Croatian dishes for us to sample and repeatedly asks us what kind of food is traditional in America. (“Um.. Fried chicken?” we reply.) We concocted some version of soup every single day, which Lela says is “the best food” for her. We’ve consumed zucchini in every conceivable form, including baked, boiled, raw, grilled, shredded, stuffed, puréed, and in no fewer than three different kinds of cake. Even her dogs eat better than most humans, with Lela preparing them full meals twice a day, complete with most of the major food groups. They get their daily zucchini, too.

Even after spending over two weeks on the farm, Matt and I still can’t get a good grasp on Lela. She’s the kind of person who does everything with passion and impressive vigor. When she digs, you get the feeling that the shovel is going to snap like a twig at any moment. When she eats, she ends up with food all over her face and sometimes even in her hair. When she breeds animals, they’re award winning show dogs. When she meditates, her ohms resonate throughout the house. And when she builds a home for herself, each brick, nail and board must be placed with the greatest care. Oh yeah, and it has to have a DIY swimming pool. But that’s a different story.

She’s a no nonsense kind of person, stressed and impatient, who has a photo of her spiritual guru on her bookshelf and a skylight to see the stars. She values solitude, peace and quiet on her farm but hosts foreign WWOOFers continually and makes trips into town almost daily. Her dogs are immaculately trained and obedient, except when they beg for the table scraps that she inevitably gives them directly from her own plate. Her cooking is all vegetarian and insanely healthy, except for the mounds of salt that she pores into each dish. She loves to meet new people and invite them into her home, yet she doesn’t hesitate to express her feelings that most people are stupid, stupid, stupid. Her English vocabulary is extensive while her grammar is rudimentary. This morning she practically yelled at me for making a painting error, and this afternoon she made a cake to commemorate our last day on the farm. Try as we might, we just can’t make sense of her.

We’ve also met some interesting WWOOFers while we’ve been here. A group of 11 Belgian scouts arrived the same day we did, which made for an interesting week. Fortunately most of them slept in tents in the yard; unfortunately the one that slept in the loft with us was the troop snorer. Lela definitely wanted to take advantage of their manpower, which accounted for all the digging we did those first few days. After the scouts came a Brazilian family who have been WWOOFing all over the world for the past year and a half, in search of the perfect place to start their “community.” They had a four-year-old son who spoke roughly four languages and was a good bit smaller than all of Lela’s dogs. The threat of five lion hunting dogs was a little daunting for them, and they left after only a couple of days. Finally came an American couple who have spent the past three months hitchhiking around Europe, on a trip very similar to but also very different from ours.

Overall we’ve decided to call our first WWOOFing experience a total success. We loved the beautiful setting (which we found strikingly similar to East Tennessee), our quirky host, her simple homesteader lifestyle and everything we’ve learned from it. And a few honest day’s work never hurt anyone.

From Croatia we’re headed for another mini vacation in Geneva, Switzerland (after a brief visit to the Barcelona airport) before hopping a bus to our next farm in southern France. Or in Matt’s words, “My passport is sore from all these stamps!”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Four days in the city




In all honesty: Our two weeks in Iceland were incredible– surreally beautiful and absolutely a once in a lifetime kind of trip. But parts of it were pretty rough on Matt and me; namely because everything in the country is outrageously expensive and not at all designed for budget travelers. We spent the whole trip living outside in the cold, wet and very unpredictable weather, eating ramen noodles and slices of plain bread in our leaky little tent. By the time we left, we were dirty, hungry and ready to give ourselves some TLC.

Cue Amsterdam. In addition to purchasing the plane tickets that made this whole trip possible, Matt’s mom booked us two nights at a B&B in Amsterdam as a graduation gift. During some of our wetter and colder moments in Iceland, the thought of that B&B waiting for us in a faraway city buoyed our spirits through the never ending rain, fog and instant pasta.

A taxing bout of hitchhiking, a taxi, an early flight and a train ride put us in central Amsterdam right in the middle of the day on July 4th. We dropped our bags in our tropical-themed room at our long-awaited B&B, in a hurry to see the city (But mostly in a hurry to find some food). Our hotel’s host presented us with a map, proclaiming the city “very small” while scribbling and highlighting points of interest. (He highlighted basically the entire map.) He then shooed us out the door, encouraging us to go get drunk and experience Amsterdam and its famous nightlife. I can imagine that he was very disappointed to find that we were home by 8 pm both nights of our stay.

Being the logical people that we are, Matt and I looked carefully at the map he gave us and neatly divided it up into the segments we would see each that afternoon and those we would save for the next day. If you’ve ever tried to navigate Amsterdam, you’re probably laughing right about now. We immediately got lost, ditched our map and decided that aimless wandering was a better approach to exploring the canal-riddled city. The streets are crooked and badly marked, forming a disorienting arc out of the center and that gives each street a curve that is imperceptible to pedestrians but devastating to navigational attempts. So you think you know in which direction you’re walking, and just when you feel you should be reaching your destination, you realize that you’re facing the opposite way because of the subtle curve of the streets and that you actually have no idea where you are at all. We’re pretty sure the whole town would shift each time we entered a building, and we would somehow exit onto a different street in a different part of the city. It felt like the urban equivalent of the moving staircases at Hogwarts; a street leads to a different place each time you walk it and you can never go back the same way you came.

In this perpetually confused way we roamed Amsterdam for two days with no agenda whatsoever and loved every minute of it. We wandered up and down its old narrow streets, lined with buildings that are timelessly beautiful while also looking like they might topple to the ground at any moment. We visited cathedrals, the famous flower market, Rembrandt’s square, saw Madame Toussaude’s, the Hermitage, Magna Plaza, and on and on. We saw the outside of Anne Frank’s house and the hundreds of people waiting to get into it. We followed our noses into bakeries and cheese shops and creperies. On every corner there were “coffee shops” that smell like every bad decision you’ve ever made and don’t actually serve much coffee. On our quest for China Town we accidentally wandered into the Redlight District and were thoroughly disturbed and thankful that it was early on a Tuesday afternoon. Every so often we’d duck into one of the countless tiny pubs for a Heineken and a bout of people watching before continuing on our way. Bicycles far outnumber cars in Amsterdam, and they zoom the crowded streets in speeding clanking hoards so that you can’t even fathom how they manage not to all collide into a rusty tangled heap.

In the evenings we dined shamelessly on fresh baguettes, brie, pastries and wine. (When in Europe, right?) After our 12 days of backpacking with minimal food or other comforts, we really didn’t feel that guilty about it.

We left Amsterdam in the morning and took a train to the Brussels airport for our flight to Zagreb, Croatia. I have to admit I was a little uneasy about traveling through Brussels, though rationally I know that it’s probably a lot safer than dodging bicycles in the streets of Amsterdam. Aside from some military presence in the airport, everything there was business as usual and we got to Zagreb without a hitch.

In Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, we spent another two days exploring the city and staying at a hostel on the outskirts of downtown.

Zagreb is another beautiful old city, with thousand year old buildings tucked away in the city’s many nooks and crannies. It’s often perceived as being very Slavic and Russian-feeling, but really Croatia is right next door to Italy and has a much more European/Mediterranean influence. It’s most known for its immaculate western coast, but unfortunately Matt and I won’t get there this time around. Much of Zagreb, we learned, was constructed during the socialist regime, so many of its buildings are drab, peeling, and kind of all-around depressing. We spent our days there very similarly to those in Amsterdam: wandering the streets, admiring old buildings, sampling the food and, our favorite, people watching from local bars and cafes.

Our first WWOOF farm is in the rural northern part of Croatia, so we wanted to soak up as much city life as we could during our four days in Amsterdam and Zagreb. If number of pastries consumed is any measure of that, I think we met our goal.

Hitchhikers’ Guide to Iceland


On many of the trips that Matt and I have taken together, he’s been mostly in charge of researching and planning, while I more or less pack my bag and hop in the car. While this tends to work well for both of us, it also gives Matt a certain amount of power to omit key details about what we’re doing until it’s too late for me to back out.

For example, last March we went to Cumberland Island for spring break and we decided to kayak to the island instead of taking the ferry with everyone else. Around the time we began unloading our boats, Matt finally mentioned that it would be a 12 mile paddle. By that point, though, it was way too late for me to change my mind and take the ferry.

Similarly, last week when we spent three days hiking the Laugavegur here in Iceland, we were already about 20 miles in when Matt finally let slip that there would be several river crossings involved. Thus, about 12 hours later I found myself wading thigh deep through swift foot-numbing water that had very recently been snow.

So when we began gearing up for the last leg of our hike and Matt casually mentioned that we were taking a mountain pass over part of a glacier, I was surprised at the information– but I also wasn’t surprised at all.

(Full disclosure: I know that Matt doesn’t necessarily do this on purpose, and that he wouldn’t send us out to do something that we weren’t capable of. I also know that in the end I’m always thankful that we did whatever it was, and I’m thankful that Matt gives me the nudge I need sometimes to challenge myself. Anyway.)

This section of our Icelandic backpacking trip, from Thorsmork to Skogar, was around 35 km and topped out at about 1000 meters. The trail wove up into a high lava field from a 2010 eruption that is mostly buried under several feet of snow. We were hiking it backwards from the popular direction, so the first several hours of the hike were an extremely steep and semi-exposed upward hike followed by 15 kilometers of very gradual decline. (This was actually ideal for us because navigating a steep upward scramble with a heavy pack is a heck of a lot easier and less sketchy than doing the same thing downward.)

Things were really great for about the first three hours of the hike. The views of the mountain scenery behind us and the glacier ahead of us were magnificent, the sun was shining in a mostly clear sky and a steady breeze kept us cool. Then, after crossing an extremely flat and unexpected ashy plateau, we began to notice the first tiny ice pellets coming down on us. We were optimistic that this was only from the cloud passing overhead and that it would soon blow over. As we climbed higher, though, things only got worse. By the time we reached the highest point of our hike, it was a full on downpour of rain and sleet, the temperature had dropped below freezing and we had emerged onto the glacier in a thick blanket of fog.

It’s important for me to note here that I borrowed my mom’s old rain jacket for this trip (without permission) because I knew she had gotten a new one– sorry, Mom. It turns out that the joke’s on me, though, because the jacket isn’t remotely waterproof, and so by the time we began our descent every single thing I had on under the rain jacket was completely drenched. (My boots and gloves aren’t waterproof either.) Matt, who was wearing socks on his hands for gloves throughout much of the hike, wasn’t in much better shape in his ultralight hoodless rain jacket.

Our wet descent into Skogar followed alongside a narrow grassy river canyon, which had giant downward steps in it that produced countless waterfalls, some gently cascading and others dramatic hundred foot drops. Had we not been so miserable and cold we might have actually enjoyed it.

I’m sure you can imagine what kind of sight we were by the time we trudged into Skogar to set up camp. We stumbled into the restaurant there for the coffee that we’d both been dreaming about for several days. It just so happened that that there was a soccer match between Iceland and England that evening, and we got to partake in another multi-national viewing party. (Iceland beat England, to the astonishment of many.)

The next day we began hitchhiking east along the Ring Road, and made it all the way to a village called Hofn (pronounced Hep) before turning around to head back toward Reykyavik. In total, we caught 12 rides and traveled around 600 kilometers along the southern coast of the island. We met a lot of interesting people this way, including a Chinese couple living in Canada who drove the tiniest car we’ve ever been in, a vacationing German plumber, an Icelandic girl who has aspirations of being a truck driver, an odd Russian/Asian couple who we think met online and met up in Iceland for their first date, and one woman who we’re pretty sure is our guardian angel.

I’ll explain. After exploring Skaftafell National Park a few days ago, Matt and I caught a ride to the iceberg lagoon (Jokulsarlon). By the time we were ready to leave, it was evening and traffic had slowed considerably. After about an hour and a half of waiting, it was getting very cold and we were growing disheartened. We decided to count 20 more cars before giving up on a ride and setting up camp on the nearby beach. (Please remember that this is a beach in Iceland at a lake full of huge frozen hunks of ice, not a warm breezy Florida beach– so not an ideal camp spot.) The 20th car passed and didn’t stop. Directly behind it, though, was one more car that we decided to wait on, and, miraculously, it pulled in next to us.

The driver turned out to be an American woman from Atlanta, Georgia, who had decided to give herself a trip to Iceland for her 30th birthday. After we explained our 20 cars story and how amazing it was that she came along at that exact moment, she explained that before her trip a friend had challenged her to do 10 things she had never done before. See where this is going? Yeah, she had never picked up a hitchhiker before.

Her name was Savannah and it turned out that she was headed exactly where we were trying to go– to the campground in the village Hofn.

Maybe it’ silly, but things like that, like Savannah, make me think that I’m somehow on the path that I’m supposed to be on. I guess you could call it a lot of things– fate, luck, coincidence, whatever. You might just call it statistical inevitability. Call it what you want, but it sure does give me the feeling that I’m doing something right.

Matt and I decided that if we made it all the way to Hofn it would be our turnaround point. We spent a day there and then began our journey westward, giving ourselves several days to get back since hitchhiking isn’t exactly the most reliable method of travel.

We made it back to Reykjavik in two days and are now at an Airbnb near the airport to catch an early flight to Amsterdam tomorrow morning.
We’ve loved everything about Iceland, from the never ending daylight to the otherworldly combinations of mountains, rivers, volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls and hot springs. We’re sad to be leaving such a beautiful place but of course are so excited to start the next leg of our adventure. We’re also very excited to spend a few nights sleeping indoors and to eat any food that isn’t ramen noodles. And so onward we trek!

Update on soccer: Tonight Iceland played France in the quarter-finals (I think) of the Euro. We’ve been told that about 10 percent of the Icelandic population, 30,000 people, traveled to Paris to watch the game. Unfortunately Iceland lost miserably and the Cinderella story has come to an end. Icelanders are rightfully devastated, but everyone we’ve talked to also seems to recognize how incredible it is that their team made it so far, being such a tiny country and having never even been in the tournament before. Afram Island!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.