BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 06 November) — I finally caught up with my Swiss friend Thomas Kellenberger in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Or rather, I caught him online.
Thomas was taking a break in the Marian pilgrimage town of Medjugorje to meet up with a Filipina, Anny Hefti-Misa and her Swiss husband Walther and another Swiss friend Susanne.
Thomas had started on August 25 his long trek back to the Philippines, where he had founded the Island Kids Foundation in Cagayan de Oro in 2006. Two months later, Thomas had already covered an estimated 1,500 kilometers or about a tenth of his planned route and had already reached five countries (Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina).
Thomas said he had lost a total of four kilos during his trek, but over the video call, he was tanned and did not look gaunt. He had also grown a full beard and Anny said he needed a haircut. But Thomas looked relaxed and happy.
“I’m happy because I had many experiences with people and didn’t have any bad thing happen; because friends have joined up with me and walked alongside,” said Thomas. “I’m happy because I am on schedule, I plan to be in Istanbul by Christmas or the end of December.”
Indeed, Thomas had met many people in the mountain or countryside routes which he had passed; but these strangers were curious after seeing the big pack on his back (surely not for a short trip, they must have thought!) and were amazed to know that he was trekking to the Philippines, and also happy to feed him or to house him when he arrived tired and hungry in their places.
Like the time he was hungry in a small village near Rijeka in Croatia and the nearest store was two kilometers away and already closed, but a family that was cutting firewood gave him sandwiches, cake, fruits and a bottle of beer!
Or when retired pensionados in Italy had offered their houses for him to sleep on the way, or gave him food and wine while he rested in their places. He calls these unexpected invitations and chance encounters as the “precious moments” that give him strength and spur him back on the road.
But Thomas had also learned about bad things. He had passed by the ruins and destruction left behind by the ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and he had heard from older Serbs and Croats who had hosted him for a while still blaming each other.
And of course, there was the physical and also emotional difficulties. Like the time when he was in the mountains and was punished by the Bora, a strong wind that could reach up to 200 k.p.h! Another time, he posted on Instagram how he did not eat enough breakfast and went hungry the whole day and was exhausted before finding a place to sleep for the night.
On Days 28 to 30, at the Parco Naturale Regione delle Dolomiti Friulane, he had no internet connection and got lost on the old trails in unstable weather. Thomas said he was forced to make an emergency stop in the dark, and was lucky next day to have better weather to proceed.
On October 6, the first death anniversary of his mother Ruth who died from sickness, Thomas also found himself feeling lonely and emotional.
“My biggest challenge is being alone, that is something that I am a little bit anxious about,” related Thomas in our video call. “When you walk with someone it’s not quite as hard because you can talk. When you walk alone, the day can get quite long.”
He adds another situation that comes at the end of his day: “When you put up your tent in a lonely place with someone else, you feel a bit more safe or comfortable. But when you are all alone putting up your tent or when you are in your tent in the dark, you feel lonely of course.”
The next 1,300 kilometers will be challenging because Thomas will not have friends or trekking companions around. He will be walking alone in the next one to two months until he reaches Istanbul, and he worries because it’s nearing winter and the days are getting shorter and night comes early at around 6 o’clock. It can also get very cold; some mornings Thomas awoke to find his tent was frozen both inside and out.
By now he has settled on a daily routine. He wakes up at around 7 a.m., then packs up his tent and sleeping bag, his maps and other belongings, and eats breakfast. This usually takes an hour.
Then he sets out, aiming to walk 30 to 50 kilometers if he is on mainly good roads or on level ground; in the mountains he is slower, estimating that a 100-meter increase in altitude will mean an additional kilometer for him.
His daily walk is flexible and open to situations that can happen. “But I have to be on schedule because I am also meeting people,” says Thomas. “I know the distance I need to cover so I can arrive on time. I cannot just stay idle or decide, “I will not walk today. Let’s just see what happens.” When Thomas meets up with friends in cities along the route, he saves one to two days for a break.
What he doesn’t know, however, is where he can sleep for the night. “It’s a little scary but it also excites me, because there are always possibilities and maybe some good surprises. The fact that I don’t know where I can sleep next evening excites me.”
Thomas says in the evenings before sleeping, he rests or reads something or if there is internet, he answers some chats or posts his updates on Instagram.
What gives him joy are his calls with the children back in Cagayan de Oro city, at least once a week. “I tell them where I am and to look for it on the map,” says Thomas. “I send them some pictures so they can see the environment around me. Since they are children, I don’t tell them too much about my hardships. I just ask them how they are doing and they will share what they experienced in the day. We just talk about the simple things.”
He adds: “It’s me listening to them and not so much they listening to me. I need to hear their voices, it has a good effect on me.”
Among the lessons that Thomas has learned about himself on the way: “I realized that it’s not good for a person like me to have too many days without people. Having someone to talk with me at least once in a day helps me.”
“After spending some time with a stranger, I notice that something has changed, I am motivated again. It’s true that I never walk alone!” Then Thomas laughs.
His next stops are Dubrovnik in Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, then on to Greece and then finally Turkey where he settles in for December.
Thomas says that now that he is walking, he actually has more time for conversation because he can walk while talking. “It’s almost like, I’m only one call away!” Then Thomas laughs again.
You can track Thomas on his trek or keep in touch with him via Instagram accounts (islandkidsphilippines or Kellenberger Thomas), his Facebook account (Kellenberger Thomas) or on the Island Kids Philippines website (www.islandkids.ch)
(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)