During my visit to Germany with a couple of friends last year, we met a lot of interesting people. We met some of our best German friends in Heidelberg–which is in the southwestern corner of the country–when we stayed with Johannes, a very unique and charismatic individual who took part in a local theater group.
We met Johannes through a mutual friend, Dennis, who we had become friends with at a hostel in Barcelona, Spain. I messaged him for some advice on finding a place to stay in Germany, and he sent me a link to a friend’s Facebook page. After a series of messages, Johannes kindly offered his home to us as well as a chance to participate in an upcoming theater festival he was participating in.
We made our way to Heidelberg via hitchhiking, and met up with him as he was preparing for a practice session for the aforementioned play. We stashed our backpacks in his fourth-floor apartment, and then joined him on a walk to a local park. There we met the other play participants: Leo, Alexander, Tomas, Katharina, Isa Bel, Simon, Thibauld and Franziska. We took a liking to them very quickly, and soon we were all drinking 1.5 liter beers from the local brewery called Vedder–which only cost two euros–and having a great time.
Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time working on completely re-designing this website and continuing to drink the cheap and delicious Vedders, as well as watching the play develop with the help of a translation provided by the Englishman, Alexander. By Saturday, three days after we had arrived in Heidelberg, I had finished the website and was ready for a break.
There was a smaller play that night, the larger one being held the following day; so we went down to get some video footage of the performance. We were able to play some music for the crowd after the play had finished, and had a great time doing so. By this point we were a couple-beers-in and ready to keep the night active.
Johannes told us about a going-away party for one of Isa Bel’s friends and invited us along. We happily obliged and began a trek to the other side of town over the old stone-built historic bridge and to a little walkway next to the river. It was here that we met Rahel–pronounced with a “kchhhk” sound in the middle–who had seen us walking with our instruments and decided to meet us.
She asked Johannes: “Have you already played, or are you going to play?”
To which he replied that we were heading to the park to the aforementioned party. She struck up a conversation with him, and upon mentioning that she had spent almost three years traveling through Southeast Asia and Australia, was introduced to me. I told her of my travels while we walked along the dirt path with the river to our left. I was impressed by her feat: having spent all that time away from home, living with very little money, sometimes in remote corners of the world. As our conversation continued, we finally arrived to the party.
It should be noted that in Germany, you can drink almost anywhere. The party was held in the public park along the river, and it was just one of very many gatherings. Young people were spread out in little groups for hundreds of yards in both directions, drinking beer and wine and conversing with one another. It was quite a sight for a newbie-German-traveler from America.
We didn’t know anyone there since it was all of Isa Bel’s friends, but it didn’t take us long to become part of the group. We got out our instruments and started playing some tunes, as well as letting some of them play. While I was letting someone borrow my guitar, I started talking to Rahel a bit more, becoming increasingly fascinated with her story. The noise from the instruments was distracting my attention, so I suggested we go for a walk. I told Johannes and the others I would be back in a little while, and off we went. We walked along the river and eventually found a spot to sit. The river passed casually by, lit with an ambient glow from the streetlights on its other side. I contentedly learned more of her experiences traveling and perspective on life in general, which I found to be inspiring.
Eventually we decided we should probably head back, since the others were waiting. It hadn’t seemed like much time had passed, but upon finally looking at my phone I realized that we had been gone for over an hour. We had a little trouble finding our party within the sea of similar-looking group-circles, but luckily I had made a note on our departure of our spot’s proximity to a large tree. We found the tree easy enough along with the group of people we were with, but Aaron, Corey, Johannes and the others were nowhere to be seen. We asked the other people if they knew where they went.
“They left about twenty minutes ago,” one of the girls said, “they didn’t know when you would be back.”
I looked at Rahel quizzically.
“Interesting,” I said. I knew how to get back to Johannes’ apartment from where we were, but I was still very much enjoying Rahel’s conversation and wasn’t quite ready to part ways.
“If you would like,” she said in her German accent, “you can stay with me at my house?”
I thought for a moment. Johannes and everyone wouldn’t know where I was at. They did however, leave me here most likely under the correct assumption that I can take care of myself, so they probably wouldn’t be too worried…
“Sure, why not.”
“Good! We can make a campfire and talk more. The only thing is, I drive motor scooter, and I live in the mountains.”
Say what? Interesting…
“A scooter?” I asked.
“Yes, and I don’t have an extra helmet which is a problem in Germany. If you see police, you must duck behind me.”
Fuck the police, how about my head bashing off of a guardrail in the middle of the damn mountains?
“Uhh, okay.” I accepted my fate with surprisingly little worry, which probably had a lot to do with the amount of Vedders I had consumed at this point. As we walked towards her scooter, conversation on travel continued until she brought my alcohol-induced confidence in her scooter-captaining abilities to a screeching halt:
“I am quite a little worried, because this is the first time I have driven the scooter with another person… especially in the mountains… and in the dark.”
“Shit… but uhh, you’ve driven scooters for a long time, right?” I asked.
“No, I have just learned this when I was in Thailand.”
“…Just don’t kill me, please.”
“I will try my best!”
Ehh, what more can you ask for?
We made it to the scooter and I pondered my fate. Behind me was the quick walk back to the safety of Johannes’ apartment, while ahead lay the unknown. It seemed my decision was made for me. I popped the cork back into my big bottle of beer and stuffed it in the under-seat compartment, then hopped into place behind her. I tried to re-position my cell phone in my shorts pocket so it wouldn’t fall out during the ride. I remember thinking: It doesn’t even really matter, I’m probably going to die… and then, Well if I don’t die, it would be nice to have it.
I had little more time to think before scooter fired up and my fate was seemingly sealed.
“Are you ready?!” she called back to me.
Off we went, ramping off of the little sidewalk ledge and onto the road towards the mountains. I was holding onto the little handles on the back of the bike as we exited the lights of the city and entered the forest. My anxiety somewhat settled into the back of my mind as I took in the view surrounding me. We had went from city streets to large pine trees on all sides, the light of the moon filtering through their branches. After what seemed like a very short time she stopped in the middle of the road and pointed to the left…
“Heidelberg!” she yelled.
We had apparently gained altitude fast. You could see the circle of lights nestled in the hills below, and the soft sparkle of the river running through its middle. Incredible.
The acclimation was made further obvious when I started realizing that I was freezing my balls off. I had began to think this was an impossibility in Germany. My estimate is that Johannes’ apartment maintains a steady temperature of around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or even possibly the equivalent of the heat needed to convert sand into glass. Now here I was only a few short miles away from there, shivering. Luckily Rahel had supplied me with a not-so-girly-looking hoodie to put on, so that did make a difference. I didn’t really care anyways. The view and surroundings of the mountain pass had me spellbound.
We stopped again after a little ways, this time to a little pull-off on the side of the road. There was clear spring water flowing from the side of the mountain into a little man-made grate and she refilled the water bottle.
“Try!” she said, handing me the bottle.
“Wow.” It was some of the best water I’ve ever tasted, without a doubt.
We hopped back on the scooter and before long entered a little mountain town, seemingly out of nowhere. This is where my backseat ride got a little sketchy and I was gripping for dear life as she speedily rounded corners and headed for the outskirts of the little village. We finally pulled in front of a cozy-looking little house and I attempted to pry my deadlocked fingers from the rear handles.
“HOLY SHIT, I’M ALIVE!” I exclaimed.
She laughed as she shut off the scooter and opened up the seat compartment. I grabbed my beer, and she let me around the side of the house to the backyard. She asked if I could start a fire, to which I scoffed and probably narcissistically rambled on about my competency as a prehistoric caveman. I can’t help it.
She went inside while I started a little fire. By the time I had it going, she came back out with a small, tattered-looking book.
“My journal, from my travel,” she explained.
Over the next few hours, we flipped through its travel-worn pages while she recounted her story. I was truly inspired and humbled by her tale. She had went to Thailand for a small trip. She had became friends with a woman while she was there, and went shopping with her one day. After they had picked out clothes and such, her friend realized she had forgotten her money. She asked Rahel if she could just borrow some of hers and then pay her back later. The price of the shopping venture was rather high, but she agreed to help her out if she promised she would pay back the money. The girl consented, and Rahel paid the bill.
Shortly after, her friend disappeared. She never heard from her again. The money she had loaned her was going to help pay for her ticket back home among other things. At first, she was heart-broken. She had also became friends with some middle-eastern guys who stayed in the same hostel as her, who gave her advice that would change the course of her life forever:
“Rahel, you are such a happy person. You always say ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ so now is the time for you to live up to it, if this is what you truly believe.”
She did. She forgave the girl who left her stranded, at least in her own conscience, and moved on. She decided to stay in Thailand. She lived there with almost no money. There were days without food, and lonely times, but things always seemed to work out. People offered to let her stay in their homes without her even having to ask, she was given food and sometimes money and she managed to live there for another eight months. She thoroughly enjoyed her life there, and made many friends who cared for her. The generosity in her story is amazing to me, given the poor economy of Thailand. For people to give money to someone they don’t even know when they’re struggling to survive themselves… it’s just incredible.
After she decided it was time to move on, she headed for Australia. There she worked on various farms, and met more and more people who helped her along the way.
Her journal showed the ups and downs of her experience; with very emotional entries from times when she was left only with herself and the loneliness that accompanied her situation. Here you would find scribbled in crayon “Scared.. Please help,” as if they were simply pleas to herself to gain the will to get through rough times. I was amazed at her willpower and carefree personality. The pages were littered with poetry and artwork, some of which really seized me.
“With you, I don’t need to die to make it to Heaven…”
I was truly intrigued. Her story continued, along with the journal. In Australia she became friends with a girl who was traveling as well. They were together for a few months, and eventually the girl decided she was going to leave. Upon her departure, she gave Rahel a gift: Her car. The girl gave her a fucking car. Again, I’m baffled.
She lived in the car for the next year and half while continuing to work on farms and meet new friends, who filled pages of her journals when they parted ways; apparently having experienced the same effect that she was having on me.
“Rahel, you are the most amazing person I have ever met. You have changed my life, and I will always love you…”
There were scores of entries such as this, a testament to her personality.
After a while, she again decided to move on. She went back to Thailand, to the town of Ko Tao where she had resided and made many friends on the first leg of her journey. She lived there for the next few months, and then finally decided it was time to come home.
Upon arriving home, she dreamt of creating a place for people who had the same outlook on life as herself, where one could live without worry of paying bills and taxes, and simply provide their skill for the community. I explained to her that this would be called a commune in English, and that many people were living very happily with this lifestyle. I wish her the best of luck on creating something for herself and all those who will come to live with her.
We showed me a futon that I could sleep on, and then opened the back door part-ways, explaining casually that I “might see a cat come in some time during the night.”
“…Do you…have a cat?”
“I take care of him sometimes, he likes to come in and lay with me.”
“Interesting.” Apparently it was just a neighborhood cat she looked after.
I went to sleep and woke up a few hours later hearing not a cat, but I’m almost positive a dog. Still not sure on that subject…
We woke up the next morning and had a cigarette and tea, along with some blueberries and strawberries from her garden. At one point I finally snapped back to reality and remembered my responsibilities to the others: “THE FUCKING PLAY.”
It was in an hour. She had told me she was very nervous about driving my back down without a helmet because of the police, so she planned on taking me to the bus station in the mountain town where I could hitch a ride back to Heidelberg. I conveyed my sense of urgency, realizing that if I wasn’t back in time to record video and sound for the play, Johannes would probably hang my balls on his front door as a forewarning to future couch-surfers. Okay, so maybe he wouldn’t have taken it that far, but he would have been incredibly disappointed in me, and I didn’t want to let him down after all he had done to help us. I had to get back, and soon.
I gathered my things and we jumped back onto the scooter. She seemed very confident this time, and I don’t know if it was that or my inspiration via her stories the night before, but I wasn’t worried this time. Or more accurately, I didn’t give a shit about the possible consequences and I just thoroughly enjoyed the ride through the mountains. This time the cool air felt magnificent against the heat of the day, and the view through the trees into Heidelberg was even more spellbinding. We stopped again at the spring, where we met some older guys filling up water jugs. They expressed concern about my helmet situation, as well as the fact that the seat of the scooter wasn’t latching correctly; which I hadn’t even noticed. I was not concerned… Whatever happens, happens.
Apparently she decided not to take me to the bus, because before I knew it we were back on the streets of the city. We hopped back up onto the curb and she turned off the scooter. We took a picture together, and walked back across the bridge. She had to be on her way to work, which led her directly past Johannes’ apartment, so we walked together until we reached the door in front of his stairway.
We said our goodbyes, not knowing whether we would be seeing each other again before I left, the time of which I was uncertain, and off she went. I turned around and started walking upstairs in somewhat of a foggy daze, playing over the events of the previous night along with her story.
The daydream ended immediately upon opening the door to Johannes’ apartment.
“TOM!” he shouted excitedly. “We were worried you would not show up, the play is happening now!”
I was handed my gear, already packed in my day pack and we headed towards Heidelberg University Square, where the play was being held. I filled them in on my interesting adventure in the mountains, and we arrived just in time to set up our equipment and successfully record the play.
It’s experiences like these that always remind me to live the moment, and enjoy everything I can while I’m on this earth. You never know who you might meet, where you might go, or what kind of views you might find; both scenic and introspective.