Saturday, 30 August 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Rainer & Eva

Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention

Cycling along the Vltava river this summer, on the outskirts of Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic, I decided to pitch my tent for the night before I got too close to the town. I didn't want to be forced to stay in a B&B. I'd spent more money than intended by extending my stay in a hostel in Prague. It's an easy place to fall in love with. Camping for a week or so would save me money and might prove more interesting, I had decided. How right I was.

Finding places to pitch a tent was never hard along the river heading south from Prague

This was a quiet stretch of the river and there were a number of likely looking spots for pitching a tent. Leaning my bike against a walnut tree, I picked up a large stick and used it to beat a path through the dense undergrowth just back from the riverbank. Shortlisting a number of possible spots, I continued on, hoping to find something with the right balance of privacy, shade and sunlight along with a soft level surface. Before too long my persistence was rewarded when I broke through some brambles into a lovely little glade with a base of clover and a boundary of camelia bushes.

An Encounter With Rainer
I was just tightening the guy-lines of my tent after returning to collect the bike, when I heard footsteps behind me. My heart sank as I turned, expecting to be told I couldn't camp here. Behind me was a bearded, bare-chested elderly man in a baggy pair of khaki shorts. Thick grey hair seemed to spring from every visible part of his body, almost as if he were a wild-man.

"Hallo, ich bin Rainer, guten abend!"

Pleased not to have been instantly told to clear off, I introduced myself in halting German and explained that I was a cyclist from the UK, making my way from Dessau in East Germany, down through the Czech Republic to the Danube in Austria and from there north-west up to Wurzburg. Rainer looked pleased as he enthusiastically shook my hand. He was an odd looking chap. It did not escape my notice that he was committing the heinous crime (according to my wife) of wearing socks with his leather sandals. Socks with large holes, through which his gnarled old toes were protruding.

"We are coming from Bremerhaven," he told me. I come down the Elbe river with my wife, starting in June but it is so cold and raining so much, jah? You are maintaining your cycle by your own self?"

I told him I was. As I did so I anticipated the reason for his question. No doubt his bike had broken and he was having difficulty repairing it.

"Ach so, perhaps you can help me," he said, placing a hand on my shoulder to guide me, "commen sie mit."

Following Rainer through the bushes and down through a well trodden hollow, we eventually came to a shaded area under tall horse-chestnut trees. Here was pitched an old tent with a washing line strung from the tent to a tree. On the line were some large ladies pants and a few pairs of socks. These also had holes. Ducking under the line and trying to avoid getting caught up in the pants I looked for Rainer, who had now stopped and had begun pulling away some branches, revealing what I could instantly see were the red and a yellow hulls of a pair of kayaks.

"Come look please," he said, "you must come closer please, closer."

Moving in behind Rainer I could see that the two kayaks were in fact joined together side-by-side with wooden struts. The struts were attached to four metal bands that had been bolted around the two hulls in front of and behind the cockpits.

"I am making this from small pieces. Some I must buy but most of them I am finding to the rubbish, hah!"

"Amazing," I said, taking care not to cause offence. "So, why are you doing this?"

"Why, yes of course, why? Yes, because my wife Eva – she is to the town to buy foods – she is having a problem mit... er, mit der..." Rainer rotated his arm and held his shoulder.

"Her shoulder?" I suggested.

"Jah jah, a problem mit her shjoulder. After so much like so mit der paddles each day, she has a big problem mit her shoulder. We stop for some days to rest of course. We continue more but problem comes back all times. For two months now. My job before is engineer. I like to build new machines... from my idea. She say we must buy one boat with motor or go back home. We must like to travel for Budapest. I say boat with motor too much expensive. Eva is sad. Then I am all night in the tent thinking what to do. Maybe this, maybe that. Change to go with bicycle maybe – but no, too much problem for shoulder also. Big kayak for two, I am thinking? Yes but so much small area for the luggages. Then I realise. Maybe I can make Eva's kayak with... with pedals. You know pedals?"

Rainer made a pedalling motion with his hands in case I had failed to understand him. I nodded in accord, trying not to smile.

"So jah, we are with the tent here and each day I am working. I try to make it from one old cycle equipments, but the kayak is too much falling over, ha ha. Crazy!"

"Unstable," I suggested.

"Yes, yes unstables. So more times I am thinking in the nights. Finally I see that I must fix my two kayak boats together and put some driving paddles between the two kayaks, like so."

Rainer pulled the kayaks out of the dark hollow so I could inspect his invention more carefully. Drawing my attention to the footwell of each kayak, he showed me how he had rigged up a crank that passed through both kayaks with rubber grommets to protect the plastic hulls. Onto that he had mounted pedals and in the centre, between the two hulls, a large cog with a chain leading to a set of metal strips fixed around another crank with a smaller cog at one end. He pointed to the metal strips. I was fixing wood pieces to the metal here to make paddles, but they every time breaking. I think about to use plastic from sweeping bucket but it break also.

"Now I ask one man to make metal paddle pieces in his workshop," said Rainer. "I think maybe it works, but I don't know. Here I have it, look!"

Rainer took a cardboard box from the back of the hollow. From it he took a piece of steel about a foot long by about four inches. Holes had been drilled for the fixings.

"I am to make it this day but the bolts he give me is too much small." Rainer threw his hands in the air in frustration. "I need this size but I only have one piece like so. I so much want to make it today but I must walk to the workshop in Hluboka. It is quite far, maybe ten or twelve kilometres, so I must go tomorrow."

"But I can go by bicycle," I told him. "It will take me half an hour. One hour to go and come back!"

"Can you do this?" he asked, his eyes widening.

"Of course I can," I assured him.

After Rainer had drawn me a map of how to get there, I set off at a healthy pace back along the narrow wooded cycle path to Hluboka. The man at the little workshop was just closing up when I arrived but made no fuss about having to dig out some new nuts, bolts and washers in exchange for the smaller ones. I was about to set off back along the path when he called me back. Into my backpack he pushed a brown paper bag, patted my back and waved me off. Inside was a large bottle of beer and a hard sausage.

My Encounter With Eva
Back at the camp I met Eva.

"Guten abend, you are Mr Mark, jah?"

I shook her hand. I noticed her caution at shaking with her right hand. Her shoulder must still be bothering her, I thought. Eva was a large, strong looking lady, well tanned with long grey platted hair. A woman who had wisdom in her eyes and written in the lines of her kindly face. She was folding her washing and had lit a fire with a large pot hanging over it, rather like the way men used to do it in cowboy films.

"Rainer washen!" she said, pointing towards the river and making the universal lathering under armpit gesture that is know throughout the world. "Essen!" she said, lifting the lid of the steaming cooking pot. "Hunchen, gut?"

"Jah, hunchen gut, danke!" I replied. I was not about to turn down chicken stew after my hard day's cycling.

With the light failing, it was difficult to begin fixing the blades of the paddles onto the drum, but returning from his evening ablutions Rainer wanted to at least try the bolts for size before opening the beer.

"Jah jah, das is richtig! Das is zair schoen," he muttered, holding it close to the light of the fire. "It is good I think, Mark. Very good. Tomorrow we can try. Eva is urgent to continue our journey. Her mother is living in Budapest so we must try to arrive before her Oktober birthday. She will have one hundred years!"

We opened the beer and drank a toast to Eva's mother. It was good beer and complimented Eva's chicken goulash well. We sat up late that night with Rainer telling stories of their exploits along their route so far, and Eva correcting him in the same way my own wife does with me. Perhaps we were not so different. I looked across at Rainer. He did not seem to possess a shirt. Like Eva I had covered up immediately the sun went down to avoid the fearsome Czech river mosquitos, yet while Eva and I were still bitten mercilessly, Reiner did not seem to receive a single nip.

"It is because his fur!" chuckled Eva, pulling at the forrest of grey hair on one of Rainer's arms.

"Jah, they are thinking I am a wolf maybe!" responded Rainer.

The next morning Rainer was up excitedly at first light. Hearing the chink of metal I crawled out of my tent to help him assemble the paddle blades on the drum. Like most engineers of his generation, Rainer was a meticulous worker. Carefully he inserted neoprene washers between the steel and the galvanised struts, before tightening the bolts to an equal tension all-round. Finally after assembling the paddle wheel onto the home-made catamaran, he tensioned the chain and motioned to me to help him drag the boat to the water.

First Sea Trials
"The first sea trials Mark, jah!" laughed Rainer.

But for a few minor adjustments the pedal-powered catamaran worked beautifully. Rainer was clearly delighted, although he did not congratulate himself. No doubt there had been many previous launches that had seemed successful at first and then failed. But this one was not going to fail, I could sense that, as I think could he. We continued up-stream for about twenty minutes before turning back. It was a beautiful morning and we watched in silence as swallows dived for insects over the shimmering water. We disturbed a heron hidden in the bullrushes as we struggled to make a clumsy turn in the unfamiliar boat.

"Eva, pack the luggages!" Rainer called out as we rounded the bend in front of our landing point. Eva was waiting at the bank. Her beaming smile said more than words ever could have.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

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