Aileen Across the Balkans

Life is incredibly subjective. We all experience things from our point of view. Each one of us is, quite literally, the centre of our own universe. For this reason, hearing about someone else’s travels can be difficult to appreciate - a review of an album you haven’t heard referencing songs you don’t know.

Returning from a trip, you experience first-hand a kind of time warp, where life has continued in your absence. All your amazing experiences can only be summarised, poorly, with snapshots and already fading memories.

Aileen Silvestris (the Moto Quest, whose Petrolette feature can be found here) seems to be in a state of perpetual travel. Her hair oscillates between fire engine red, auburn, and most recently easter egg pink. She is the kind of woman who can walk into a tattoo parlour looking for directions and come out with new ink.

For six weeks from April to June 2016 she cheated on her regular Yamaha XS400 and rode a new Scrambler Ducati Sixty2 across the Balkans, starting in Italy, then to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania, a trip spanning some five thousand kilometres. The route reads like a Eurovision final line-up or the flight itinerary of Carmen Sandiego. To think she travelled across that many countries, solo, on the back of a bike, is mind boggling (and butt numbing). Hipsters eat your heart out: Aileen uses paper maps, not GPS. Of course she took a pile of photos, and some video too, so you can immerse yourself in her travels from the comfort of your computer screen (as I’m sure she did once she came back).

While a lot of the images on her Instagram are picturesque, the best stories are to be found in the comments, referring (sometimes only in passing) to the difficulties she overcame on the journey.

At the end of the rainbow I didn’t find gold, but a 10€ room and some well deserved rest.

It seemed there were solid weeks of rain, where she was 'soaked to her knickers' and 'searching for dry socks', finding the 100km/hr hairdryer useful, occasionally airing out on a rocky beach, or huddling near a fireplace overnight (if all else failed).

Aileen does things because she doesn’t know if she can.

She travels alone to more fully immerse herself in the culture of wherever she is going, and - without the safety blanket of a travel companion - connect better with the locals. She speaks of vulnerability, often relying on the kindness of strangers to put her up for the night, and her guts/intuition to keep her out of hairy situations. For someone so excited about the prospect of being on the road that she forgot to eat lunch on the first day (something we can all relate to), ‘weird vibes’ led her to turn down the first gift of shelter - some men offering a bed and dinner (in that order) within minutes of meeting her. She eventually reached the day’s destination, took a wrong turn down a one way street, and serendipitously came across an old monastery where some parents tidying up after a school event found her a safe, comfortable, non-weird-vibey place in town to stay.

On another occasion, 45 minutes from Bar (a coastal town in Montenegro), she found herself pinned under her bike in a field, her tyre inconveniently having found soft wet clay at the bottom of a puddle. She was eventually found (still under the bike), rescued by a local girl who was moving cows between the paddocks, with Aileen luckily only sustaining some bruises, a torn knee ligament, and some battle scars on her scrambler. I’ve heard a similar story in suburbia, where someone was trapped under a mammoth bike in their own driveway; a neighbour only being alerted to their predicament by continuous honking of the bike horn.

In one of Aileen’s video updates, the wind is so ferocious she is practically yelling at the camera to be heard, saying the bike can hardly stand. Snow can be seen on the ground. The sound is chilling; you feel as if you are there. For those of us who have only known the safety of a full-face helmet, the conditions in the video give you a solid impression of what riding with an open-face one might be like. On a mountain. In a snowstorm.

After all this, she is still a woman after my own heart: “Connecting with the locals at a 1am pub return in Herzegovina” describing a photo of a sanguine tabby. In another she is “making local friends” with a puppy chewing on her crinkled nose. In another still there is a VW Beetle with the descriptor: “Met another German”. More recently, she organised her spanners in her (wo)man cave #stilllearning #stillTOOshy. I find it far too easy to imagine myself in her place, moving through mountainous terrain, alone with my bike and my thoughts.

Yesterday I rode into the clouds.

Technology and social media allows updates in real-time, so you can interact with travellers in a way you never could before. There are the occasional “nice ass” comments on donkey pictures (almost necessary, really), but in all, snapshots, moving into videos and 'stories' become a little less about looking at other people’s holiday photos, and a little more like an ad for a life you could lead too. Aileen doesn’t seem to have any trouble making friends wherever she goes, and we hope that she keeps doing her thing so we can live vicariously through her (when we can’t get time off work), find new places to go ourselves, or maybe even offer her a bed for the night. Nothing weird!

Jo is a buxom redhead looking for adventure. She loves her motor children equally, and no, you can’t ‘take them for a spin’. Easily distractible, but also easily obsessed, she is our Creative Content and Lifestyle Editor, resident proof-reader, and zany ideas lady. Caffeine is her fuel of choice.