Monday, 20 October 2014

Lessons From Chief’s: From Beara to Bosnia

Sheena Lydon - a former member of Moycullen Girl Guides and Galway Senior Branch - is cycling to Vietnam! Here she tells us something of her trip so far and how her Guiding experience is helping on her trip of a lifetime ...

I'm sitting typing this in a small hotel in Pejë, Kosovo. It's a beautiful country and the people have shown me kindness beyond all reason. I went to a shop yesterday and bought a can of Fanta: I wasn't allowed leave before sitting down with the lady who owned the shop, and her three teenage daughters, while they plied Sam (my boyfriend) and myself with meat pastries, cakes, Turkish Delight and drinks. And it wasn't the first time it had happened that day either. For a little country that I knew little about, I am so glad that we have decided to cycle through here. Sam and I are currently on our way to Vietnam on our bikes. We get up every morning, pack up all we own and pedal our way to our next destination. It's hard work, but the rewards of meeting new people, seeing beautiful places and learning more every day about the countries that we visit makes it worth each minute that we spend pedalling.

I joined the Brownies when I was five, working my way through the ranks until I became a Ranger and Young Leader. I loved being a Girl Guide: it taught me a huge variety of things about life (including how to steal your Leader's knickers and hoist them up a flagpole!), about myself (I have an endless love for proficiency badges) and opened up a world of possibility to me. Back in 2000, when I signed up to do the Chief Commissioner’s Award on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, little did I realise the thirst for adventure that it would kindle in me.

A far cry from Kosovo I hear you say? To be fair, I often have as good a shot at understanding Albanian as I did the West Cork accent. It was brilliant and, much like my current adventure, we managed not to get blown away, met some mad, fun and interesting people and had a great time. We had our ups and downs too, of course, but learning to deal with those is beyond valuable. Although these two particular adventures may seem light years apart, the things that I learned on the Chief’s, and in the Guides in general, have prepared me for a lifetime of adventuring, exploring and hopefully going out into the world, at home or abroad and leaving a good impression.

I really can't say enough about the motto ‘Be Prepared’. Obviously, there's only a certain amount of situations and scenarios that you can be prepared for practically when you have to carry everything in a rucksack or on a bike. But for me, it's more about the mental capacity to adapt to a situation. We found ourselves waking up one morning in Croatia a few weeks ago to find that a river had topped its banks overnight and we were now camping quite definitely in the middle of it. What can you do? We took some photos of our belongings bobbing about, rescued as much as we could and had a cup of coffee and a laugh at the predicament we found ourselves in. The ability to turn a bad situation into good is paramount to enjoying your travels and one that I learnt while holding my tent up against a storm somewhere near Casletownbere on the first night of the Chief’s. Be prepared for things to go wrong, and when they do, keep your chin up because a few hours later it's quite likely you'll be laughing about it.

Being open to the goodness in people is something that has always served me well. It's another lesson I took from the Chief’s: we were often stopped by people who wanted to know what we were doing and who offered water, directions or sometimes just a chat. On my current travels, I have lost count of the amount of times when people have gone way beyond what you could expect of someone and helped us out in one way or another. My favourite happened when we were travelling in West Germany. Running out of daylight, tired and in need of a place to camp, I decided to ask at a pub. When I went in, the lady at the bar spoke no English, she gestured in the direction of a man sitting at a table and I approached him and asked if he knew of a campsite nearby. He looked thoughtful for a moment, picked up his phone and made a call. When he put his phone down, he told me he had found somewhere with a friend of his and we were to follow him. Despite the fact that he had just had his dinner brought to the table, he hopped in his car, belted off like the clappers with me and Sam in hot pursuit. He pulled up in a lane and we caught up with him. He told us to wait for Axel, who had finished work and would be here in 15 minutes and promptly disappeared to attend to his rapidly cooling schnitzel. I pictured a large balding man in overalls as we stood at a bridge with no indication there was any field suitable for camping in the vicinity. As we discussed whether Axel might be some sort of a mad man, he pulled up and hopped out of his car. With his hair swept up in a ponytail, smartly dressed and a big smile on his face, he proudly announced that he spoke no English, led us down a lane past his goats to a small field complete with eating area and river running through it. He shook our hands and like that, he was gone. Not only did he save us the hassle of finding somewhere to camp as it got darker, he also allowed us the pleasure of staying in his lovely, well cared for field without a notion of who we were. Thanks Axel! I am so often blown away by the kindness strangers show us on a daily basis. Always be open to the kindness of strangers, and remember to show a little kindness yourself every once in a while.

Above all, the biggest thing I took away with me from the Chief’s was an enormous sense of adventure. The idea that I could spend time travelling around a small corner of a country that I had lived in all my life and still find things new and interesting and exciting was a massive revelation to me. Everywhere I go, there are unexplored, seldom visited nooks and crannies that people whizz by on their travels. And these are the places we get to see. We have been to countries that are a by-word for conflict, whose only associations for me were images of refugees on the news and I found nothing but kindness and hospitality. We have cycled through countries where it's perfectly normal for everyone, including the police, to have beer and wine for breakfast. We are currently in a country that is still under UN protection and where powercuts are the norm. In fact, there's one just now! It is all new and amazing and exciting and it never ceases to amaze me that when we pass over an imaginary line and hand someone over our passports, just like that, we are in a new country...... new language, new currency, new weird and wonderful ways! I will never grow tired of it.

If I were to list all that I learnt on the Chief’s, you'd be reading for quite some time! My award saw me jumping over bog holes, going through record amounts of blister plasters on one foot alone and having the time of my life. It prepared me, not just for my current travels, but for so many things I have experienced in my day to day life. I have a huge amount to be thankful to the Girl Guides for - not just my experiences, but the people that I have had in my life as role models.

So there you have it! Go out and experience the world whether it's Beara, Bosnia or anywhere beyond!

For anyone who wishes to follow our adventure, check out our website here or our Facebook page here.

~ Sheena Lydon

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