The Other Side of the Fence

A conversation with long-term traveler Rico Noack.


I’ve been feeling a bit worn out by my own stories lately — perhaps also a bit pressured (even if just internally) to keep churning them out.

I feel like it is once again time to surrender to the present — and because i want to keep up with my weekly newsletter output, i decided this would be a good opportunity to try something different: to share stories from other travelers’ perspectives!

The first one is a conversation with Rico Noack, a Couchsurfer from Germany who stayed with us for one night with his friend Kristin back in January. Rico and Kristin were especially energic guests. While we were sharing travel stories over dinner, i felt inspired to revisit an idea i had first considered a couple of years ago — to record and share conversations with fellow long-term travelers talking about their experience on the road 🙂

After they left, Rico and i kept corresponding, and eventually had a couple of calls during which we recorded the conversation below:

The Other Side of the Fence – A conversation with long-term traveler Rico Noack

If you prefer, you may also download the audio.

In our conversation, Rico told me in more detail about how his travels evolved, from typical family holidays while growing up, to his first independent trip to visit a friend in Bulgaria (and also first time Couchsurfing) in 2012, his time living, traveling in and falling love with Romania between 2014 and 2015, and finally his half a year cycle touring and backpacking from Azerbaijan to Georgia, then around Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and back to Azerbaijan in 2017. This last adventure is where we spent the majority of our time talking.

We also talked about his process documenting his journeys, which started as a method to manage sensorial overflow and developed into an ethical duty to share the experience with others back home, as well as where he traveled. Rico has written a chronicle of his 2015 trip to Romania, Moldova, and Italy, and is now in the process of composing another book — developing from his journals from his 2017 expedition in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and enriched with passages by Kurban Said and Chinghiz Aitmatow. He told me (via email) that “[s]haring these experiences, promoting those countries ([in] written or [spoken form]) is a way to stay in touch with them for me. And to give something back.”

Here’s a more detailed index:

  • 0:00:00 Preamble: Some words about my intention with this experiment;
  • 0:04:47 “Who’s Rico”: Introduction, and first travel experiences on the other side of the fence;
  • 0:14:51 “You should start working and make some money”: Or maybe not — arriving, staying, and falling in love with Romania;
  • 0:21:20 “I have to write this down, otherwise [my head] will explode!”: From managing sensorial overflow to an ethical duty to share;
  • 0:24:02 “And then I had the feeling that everything started”: Azerbaijani hospitality, from strangers to friends;
  • 0:38:15 “To German and Georgian friendship!”: Experiencing (literally) a different flavor of hospitality, and pondering its meaning and sources;
  • 0:45:34 “in Georgia, you always have your tent in a really beautiful place”: Everyday life on the bicycle;
  • 0:54:51 “Oh come on these mountains are just too high to cycle them!”: Backpacking in Central Asia, starting in Kyrgyzstan;
  • 1:00:30 “It’s a really cool concept I think”: Volunteering at the Community-Based Tourism in Sary Mogol, Kyrgyzstan;
  • 1:05:33 “She was hitchhiking alone to whole Tajikistan”: Getting curious about the country;
  • 1:19:22 “Dog sticks and baking soda”: Some of Rico’s practical solutions for dogs, personal hygiene, and other practical matters.

It’s flattering that i can help him fulfill this duty! Truth be told, editing the audio was more challenging than i anticipated, but i enjoyed our conversation very much and learned a lot from the whole process. I hope you will also enjoy listening to it!

Questions and feedback to Rico may be addressed directly to him via email: riconoack1 [at] hotmail [dot] de.

More about Rico

Rico is a 29-year old social worker from Germany. He currently works part-time counseling refugees and people with disabilities for an NGO in Leipzig. Parallel to that, Rico is writing a Master’s thesis on the circumstances of disabled refugees in Germany, aiming to give the topic more exposure in the academic community. He was featured in an article (in German) on ADZ-online about Social Work in Romania, where he spent eight months as a volunteer (http://www.adz.ro/artikel/artikel/der-aufbruch-der-rumaenischen-sozialarbeit/).

When Rico is not working or writing, he enjoys cycling small dusty roads and forest trails in the countryside, spending time with his flatmates, friends, and family, as well as playing his guitar or harmonica. He invites you to listen to some of his recordings on soundcloud.

References

Some books, opportunities and resources mentioned in our conversation:

  • If you can read German, he will be happy to send you the chronicles from his five weeks traveling in Romania, Moldova, and Italy in 2015 — just send him an email!

Annotated maps of Rico’s travels in the Caucasus and Central Asia:

Some photos from Rico’s travels (click for full view):

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Featured photo:Rico, sunburned in a Kakhetian vineyard (Georgia ’17)


Enjoyed this interview? I plan to make more like it in the near future and will announce them on my newsletter whenever they go live — if you don’t want to miss it, then subscribe!


Interviews: cycle touring, hitchhiking, hiking; Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Central Asia;
Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Trelograms #15 — Remember, You’re Going to Die

“To be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times a day.”

Bhutanese folklore

Although i wasn’t aware of this practice in any of my previous cycle tours, there are at least two things i can confidently say about them:

  1. My cycle tours have been the backdrop for the most peaceful and mentally settled periods of my life;
  2. No other experience has exposed me so consistently and so vividly to the fragility and inevitable finitude of life.

We’ve all seen roadkill, and i’m sure at least some of you will agree that their various shapes, sizes and states of putrefaction are much better appreciated from a bicycle than from a car — dogs, deer, squirrels, badgers, mice, birds, toads, snakes, snails, or whatever that used to be during its brief, confused life come by the daily dozens on a cycle tour — their individual lives rendered relatively insignificant by the context underlying their impending but still unexpected death

That’s my own fate!

I‘m very glad i’m on a cycle tour.

___
Featured photo: a freshly killed dog just outside Drobeta-Turnu Severin (Romania, April ’17) 


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Trelograms’ is a wordplay between ‘telegram’ and ‘trélos’ (Greek for ‘mad’)

Trelograms: inspiration; cycle touring; worldwide, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine

All Roads Lead to Rom…ania!

When i rode my bicycle from Copenhagen to Istanbul in Autumn last year, people along my way kept asking me, “isn’t this a bad time of the year to be doing this?” They might have been right — so, this Autumn i decided i’ll try hitchhiking instead 😀

What? Why!? Where!!?

I suppose you can imply the answer to the last one from the title — for the other two, read on 😉

The premise

An earlier draft of this post contained a lot more words and i could certainly make this sound a lot more complicated — but the process this time was actually quite straightforward.

I’m currently stationed in L’viv, Ukraine — that’s where i decided to take a break after The North Cape Hypothesis, my attempt to ride my bicycle from Niš, Serbia to Nordkapp, Norway via Eastern Europe and Russia.

I plan to stay in L’viv at least until leaving on my next big cycle touring project next Spring/Summer — potentially indefinitely. While i don’t sort out my residence permit, i can’t legally stay in the country for more than a total of 90 days out of every 180 running days though — i had to look for a place nearby where to be for the remaining 90 days.

Sounds like the perfect excuse to return to Romania!

The plan

Once again, quite simple — though perhaps intention is a better term than plan to describe my mindset — plans may change, while i expect the intention laid out below to remain somewhat stable.

As in previous projects, i intend to reconnect with old friends as well as make new ones. I will also once again travel solo and rely largely on the hospitality and creativity of the locals for a safe place to sleep, although self-supported in just about every other regard.

On the other hand, there are many ways in which i expect this to be quite different from previous projects. This time i will be hitchhiking, thus largely relying on the locals for my transportation also — at least for much of it. Interacting with people will remain my focus, but i hope to take that to the next level. I want to stay longer at fewer places this time. The bulk of this project will take place in the Romanian speaking world, and one of my goals is to acquire a conversational level of Romanian. I’m not only seeking to document my encounters better than i have but also to go further out of my comfort zone and ask some of the questions i might not have had the courage or resources to ask before!

But as far as planning is concerned, that’s about all i have to say right now 🙂 — i’m leaving on Friday (November 3rd, 2017) towards the village of Runcu (Dambovita), where i’ll meet my homestay host, and we’ll take it from there 😀

As i expressed in my previous article, i loved Romania the first time i was there earlier this year, and i’m super excited about this prospect!!

The plea

I’m slowly phasing out of social media. I want to focus more and more of my time and energy on creating relevant content for this website and the organic growth of a genuinely interested and engaged audience. If you find what i’ve been doing valuable, or interesting, or inspiring, or promising, or entertaining, or whatever it may be that you like about it, there are two quick actions you may take to help me with that 😉

#1. Sign up for my mailing list!

I am hard at work on a budget long-term traveling tutorial consolidating what i’ve learned over the past couple of years from my personal experience on the road and interacting with other travelers — indeed, a significant component of the present project will be doing some research for that! Those of you who are signed up for the mailing list before the tutorial is released will be the first to see it!

Meanwhile, being on the mailing list also gives you early access to my weekly Trelograms series, which will be delivered straight to your inbox a couple of days before they’re published on the blog, as well as manageable monthly summaries of what i’ve been up to for you to stay in the loop without going insane 😉

#2. Forward this to someone who might care!

I’d rather have you send it as a direct, personal message to one person or a few people you feel might be especially interested — if it’s that much easier for you to mindlessly share it on your social media i’m also fine with that though :p

Thank you so much for your attention, and see you on the road!!


TNCH #2 — But Won’t the Gypsies Steal My Clothes?

I know, right? But that’s exactly what i asked one of my hosts in Bucharest half-jokingly when she pointed to the clotheslines outside the living room window of their ground floor apartment.

I say half-jokingly because i must admit i still carried some of the prejudice i had entered Romania with a couple of weeks before — a prejudice that compounded itself an order of magnitude over through the exonym for the Romani people, and another one for conflating them with the Romanian nationality. I’m aware that publicly acknowledging prejudice can come across as patronizing and still be hurtful to its target. I see no better way to internalize personal progress on the front — kindly let me know if you do 🙂

This is the second in a series of articles on how my prejudices and expectations about each country i visited during my latest cycle touring journey (the North Cape Hypothesis) were challenged by my actual experience in them. I hope that this reading will encourage you to reflect upon and challenge whatever prejudice might be alive inside you right now, regardless of whom they target. I would also love to hear your reactions to this piece, so please feel invited to comment at the bottom or write me an email!

The negative spiral of hearsay

Romania was the second country i visited in the North Cape Hypothesis. I spent a total of 21 days in the country riding between Drobeta-Turnu Severin, where i’d entered from Serbia, and Galați, where i left to Moldova. This included a 10-day layover in the capital and largest city, Bucharest.

By this point you might have correctly guessed that nobody stole my clothes or anything else in Romania. It might have actually been the country (at least among the 12 i visited during that tour) where i was given the most from locals — in particular, it is where i was offered money (cash!) the most — that must be the exact opposite of being robbed!

Nevertheless, i’d been very apprehensive about cycle touring in Romania — this might be where it will finally happen to me on a cycle tour, isn’t it?

How the hell did this develop?

All encounters with Romanian nationals i can recall before entering the country for the first time on April 11th, 2017 had been positive experiences: a peer during graduate school in the US — the jolly bunch who adopted me for an evening at a bar in Montréal, after i had been ditched by some Couchsurfers who never showed up — my high-spirited housemate for about a year in Copenhagen, and a couple other acquaintances from the boardgames meetup at around the same time — my friend Bogdan Budai, who also happens to be one of the greatest sources of inspiration for my transition into my current lifestyle — the panhandler in Malmö who attended to my suitcase while i figured out how to get to the airport to catch my flight to Serbia and hop on the touring rig that would soon bring me into her country — i can immediately think of at least another handful of such neutral-to-positive firsthand experiences, and not even a single negative one.

On the other hand, much of what i remember having heard about Romanians before going into Romania had not been very positive.

Research indicates that we might be wired to internalize negative impressions more saliently than positive ones. Thus, i won’t repeat what i’ve heard here, as just the title of this article and what has been implied so far might already be enough of a disservice to Romanians, Gypsies and our hopes for a flourishing global civilization — if you’ve heard bad things about them, you probably know what i’m talking about — and if you haven’t, i hope to convince you that you don’t need to.

Alright, how did it go?

My experience in Romania was overwhelmingly positive. I can’t say it was 100% positive, but it must have been close to that. To give you a better idea of what i mean, let me briefly share with you my most uncomfortable moment in the country.

I was passing through yet another small village along the Danube when it came the time to refill my water bottles and get something sweet to eat. Towards the end of the village, i pulled into a typical magazin mixt — a small shop for everyday staples outside of which you may also find locals having a drink. The shop proper was located inside a gated patio. There were two men drinking next to the gate, and another party of three young people at a table in the back.

As usual, i immediately had their attention. Contrary to what nearly always happens, this time they seemed suspicious rather than interested though. One of the men at the gate asked me if i was the police, and the young guy at the table in the back would not believe i was just a traveler from Brazil.

Inside the shop, circumstances were more neutral, but i was getting increasingly sensitive to any signals from the environment. When i realized nobody had offered to pay for my carbohydrates, my spider sense went off — let’s not linger here — i’ll refill my water bottles in the next village.

Back outside the shop, the harassment persisted. The young guy in the back, who still didn’t believe i was from Brazil and had started quizzing me about my home country, wanted me to come over. One of the women sitting with him then asked me for money — to me that’s a clear sign that you’re not being treated as a guest.

Whatever it was that was brewing there might have well turned out alright — i did not stay long enough to find out.

Are you serious!?

Yes — i was dead serious when i wrote the alarm went off when i noticed that nobody had offered to pay for my croissant — that’s simply how well i had been treated in the countryside along my way up to that point!!

When i pulled into another such magazin mixt to refill my water bottles for the night a few days before in Bistrița, i couldn’t leave without a chat, a bottle of soda and a cup of coffee with Sorin, Emi, Alin, Marius and Stan, who also offered me food. Later that same day, when i asked the shepherds one village over if i could pitch my tent somewhere in their field, they pointed me to where i’d be better protected from the wind.

Next day, i once again couldn’t clear the village of Botoșești-Paia without first following Cosme to the shop, where i was offered a place to sit, a cup of coffee, some sweets for the road, and even asked when i’d visit them again!

When i pulled into a little patch of forest just outside of Caracal to find a place to pitch my tent, i ran into this happy family having a barbecue.

Surprise, surprise — they didn’t let me go without first filling my belly with the proceeds from their grilling and a couple of beers. The sausages and cake they gave me for the road lasted for another couple of days, and the bottle of wine for another several. I asked Razvan if there was something i could do for them — “no — actually, yes — it would be nice if you told people about your experience in Romania.”

Here i am 🙂

Next day in the morning, on my out of the forest where i had set camp the night before, i pulled into another magazin mixt to ask if i could use their Internet for a few minutes. What developed has been one of my most heartwarming encounters to date on a cycle tour. The shop owner, Leonica, has remained one of my most diligent followers. She constantly responds to my social media dispatches with much-appreciated words of encouragement. They always remind me of the hospitality with which they treated me, making sure i had everything i needed before i got back on the road.

In many occasions such hospitality came completely unsolicited. The morning after meeting Leonica, i was merely 8km into my ride and had no reason whatsoever to stop when i heard a call from the roadside offering me a cup of coffee at Florin and Florina’s bar.

The longer i stayed inside, the more the prospect of braving the chilly and drizzly weather back outside seemed unappealing. The coffee had by then turned into Easter cake, then sarmale, then a drink — “what else do you need? — you can ask anything you want,” Florin kept repeating in Spanish every time he offered me something. He meant it — “would you be able to offer me a place to spend the night?” — “no problem — stay, we’ll eat, drink, chat, tomorrow morning we’ll give you a hearty breakfast and you’ll be back on the road feeling better than ever.” I ended up staying with their friend Marcel, who’s retired and lives alone — i wouldn’t refuse to keep an old man company for one night in exchange for so much hospitality!

And what did i do when a good place to wild camp or an invitation to stay inside didn’t happen? In Romania, gas stations continued to be the perfect place to pitch a tent for the night where someone hadn’t already offered me a room — just like i’d experienced in Serbia and Turkey, they’ll give you water, access to the toilet, and make sure you’re within the security camera’s range.

Campsite by night, hot spot by day — ironically, i don’t think i’d be able to cycle tour without the support from gas stations, which i probably visit more often than someone traveling by car!

On my way out of Florin and Florina’s towards Giurgiu, i eventually stopped by this one in Zimnicea to get some candy, refill my water bottles, and perhaps also use the Internet. Martin told me i could sit there for as long as i wanted, and actually suggested i stay for the night. Along the way, he and his brother Florin kept bringing me food, which was in turn supplemented by coffee and soda from random customers coming in and out. Martin had tears in his eyes as i left — “why are you sad?” — “because i just learned about who you are and what you’re doing, and now you’re leaving” — that put tears in mine.

I soon realized that taking pictures and writing down the names of every single person i had a nontrivial interaction with would be impractical. The ladies in the picture below, which some of you might recognize from my previous post in the Trelograms series, refilled my water bottles.

Towards the end of that same day, i asked another such group of lovely ladies chatting by the bench outside if they knew where i could sleep in my tent for one night. They gave me a lead three villages over, and when i was about to thank them and get back on my way one of them said, “wait!” and ran inside — she came back with enough food for another couple of days — “drum bun!

Truly honorable mentions

What if i told you that the above is barely scratching the surface of my positive experience in Romania? In fact, all of the above is merely the countryside highlights of what happened within my first few days in the country up to that uncomfortable incident.

I’m deliberately leaving out of this story all the support and friendship i could so effortlessly find in the cities of Craiova, Bucharest and Galați from Alex, Raz, Alex, Dana, Nico, Anca, Paul, Lulu, Mihai, Robin, Dan and Giorgiana through Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. Can i at least share my experience touching Ioana’s bathroom tiles?

I’m also leaving out the tremendous amount of support and friendship i continued to find in the countryside after leaving Bucharest, most notably from Liviu, Margareta, Viorica and all other folks at Viorica’s magazin mixt, where a request for a safe place to pitch my tent for one night turned into an invitation to stay for the whole weekend and return more leisurely in the future.

In summary

To be clear, i never felt entitled to any of this hospitality — i’d simply gotten used to it, and probably reacted a lot more defensively than i need have when confronted with suspicion. This is one of the main reasons i want to speak better the language of my hosts in my next cycle touring project, which will likely involve a larger amount of time in a smaller number of countries. I wonder how the situation would have developed had i been able to interject, “why are you asking me these questions? — what do you expect from me?”

Does Romania deserve the reputation they have at least through much of Western Europe? I invite you to go check it out and see for yourself.

If your experience turns out anything like mine though, i must warn you Romanians might indeed steal something from you — a big piece of your heart!


Read the next article in the series: But Would That still Work in Ukraine?
Previous article: But Why Serbia!?
First article: The North Cape Hypothesis


The North Cape Hypothesis: cycle touring, solo travel; Eastern Europe, Romania


ps. Anyways, were these the clothes i was worried anybody else might be interested in!?

Trelograms #3 — The Social Individual

The ‘bench outside’ is still a rather prevalent feature in Eastern European countryside. From old people sitting alone attentively observing what’s happening on the street, to groups of neighbors having a chat, to young couples dating, you’ll have plenty of people to wave at and exchange smiles with on your way cycle touring there.

It took me a while to realize that i actually grew up myself in a house with such a bench outside  —  and also a lovely old lady who spent much of her time chatting with all the other lovely old ladies in the neighborhood.

Over time i saw the gates around the block (including ours) grow taller and advance into public land, sometimes becoming walls — probably more to protect the thugs from us than us from them? Whether this change was for better or worse, something was definitely lost in the process.

What about you? What has been your experience? Please comment below — i’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

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Featured photo: lovely ladies chatting by the “bench outside“ in Romanian countryside ( April ‘17 )


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Trelograms’ is a wordplay between ‘telegram’ and ‘trélos’ (Greek for ‘mad’)

Trelograms: inspiration; cycle touring; Romania