Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How to see the best side of humanity: Some thoughts on traveling sans safety net

It's my last Saturday night in Russia for the foreseeable future, and one of my roommates and I took it upon ourselves to whoop up my last weekend and head outside of Moscow.  The snow is gone, and so are we.  Our third roommate headed to St. Petersburg for the weekend, and, not wanting to miss out on a little action away from home base, we thought it would be fun to have just one more Russian adventure before I depart.

We are in Suzdal, which, from the glimpses I have gained speeding through the main stretch of town at 100 km/hr at 10:20pm, is Russia's answer to Colonial Williamsburg...at least architecturally speaking (we'll see tomorrow morning if there are folks dressed up like days of yore- fingers crossed!). 

So why pull out of town my last weekend here?  I was wondering the same thing this afternoon as I pushed a fresh change of clothes into the now very well used travel pack that has schlepped from St Pete to Siberia and back again.  A long irritating search for the correct bus (unfruitful) eventually left us taking a non-sanctioned bus (think underground version of the DC-Chinatown to NY that leaves from 7th and G NW), and I asked myself the same question again.  I could be, right now, taking a pre-dancing evening snooze before putting on a fun skirt and having one last night dancing with mafia-esque creepy guys and hanging with the friends I have made in my dorm.

Cue three hours in stop and go traffic and drizzling rain on the "informal economy's" (read: operating outside of State regulations) answer to the sanctioned bus system.  This bumpy ride was followed by the sinking realization that Tema and I are too late pulling into Vladimir, the city through which we must pass to get a connecting bus to Suzdal, to get a bus that night.  Now we had a a little more of an adventure on our hands than we had hoped for.

Fifteen minutes later I had my answer as to why I had wanted to travel my very last weekend in Moscow (for the time being- I will be back!!): Adventure and the opportunity to see the best in others. A young couple on the bus overheard our predicament and gave us the number to a reliable cab company that could take us to Suzdal.  When our phone calls didn't pan out, they each took their own respective phones out and spent the next three minutes securing a cab from an alternative company.  Tema and I stood outside the darkened bus terminal in Vladimir, grinning at each other in the glare of the streetlights reflecting off the wet pavement.  We had been talking on the bus about "Russkya Dusha"- Russian spirit- how generous, genuinely truly hospitable, Russian people are.  Russkya Dusha to the rescue: The young couple's efforts yielded a Hyundai that swooped out of the misty night to carry us away to Suzdal.

My 'why are we doing this again' thoughts were obliterated within seconds after the cab pulled away from the darkened avtobusvoksal (bus terminal).  Hiking bag and purses tucked around us, Tema and I had laid our heads back against the seat and immediately had our eardrums assaulted by blaring bass of danceclub techno music.  Once again, we shared a goofball grin at each other, delighted by the bizarre twists the evening had taken.  Here we are, cold, slightly damp, slightly lost, and without any real idea of how to accomplish our next mission, but fate and helpful Russian hospitality had intervened to make all things possible.

Splashing to the hostel on The. Worst. Road. Ever. the cabbie got totally lost in the dark wetness of the Suzdalian countryside.  Lucky we are once again, because out meandering in the soggy night are a middle aged man and a teenage boy, who helpfully point our cabbie in the correct direction- back down the puddle filled and pothole pocked road we had first tried, but now we had a better idea of what we were looking for.  We pushed past the point where the cab had first turned around, sure we were lost, and eventually pulled up outside of Godzillas Hostel, a fantastic A-frame cabin shaped slice of heaven in the rural Russian countryside.

When our knocks on the front door yielded no answer, Tema and I were forced to tap on the window of the hostels' front room to get the attention of the woman happily typing away on a computer.  After scaring the shit out of the poor soul with our loud rapping, she alerted the head of the hostel that two half drowned ragamuffins had deposited themselves on the front porch.  Two minutes later we were checked in for two nights of relaxation and adventure, and our thoughts turned to the fact that we were ravenously hungry.  Lunch for me had been 10 hours earlier, and Tema had eaten only творог (Russia's answer to Greek yogurt) that morning before heading to class.  Alas, it was almost midnight in rural Russia, and there was no cafe open...even if there had been, there was no way that we would be able to slither up the flooded road to the civilization of the town center above- the road was all mud, and I had already burned a lot of karma points willing the tiny Hyundai cab to not get stuck in the mud on our adventure to the hostel.

There was no food to be had in town, and yours truly is really, really specific about eating three meals a day as part of my regimen to keep my ever-lurking eating disorder* at bay.  But Russkaya Dusha was once again on our side- the hostel director gave us a conspiratorial grin, and busted open her personal stash of yogurt and milk.  I had packed some cereal for the morning, and Tema had thrown two oranges into our bag that morning.  A festive dinner of cold cereal, milk, fruity yogurt and oranges ensued, and I climbed into my bunk bed with a full stomach and happy heart.

The doubts I had about leaving town my last weekend in Russia had been obliterated by the wonderful twists and turns the evening had taken. But more than the adventure that had unfolded, what I appreciated most about the evening- what could have only come as a result of traveling into the unknown-was that I had gotten to see the best in others when I was in a pinch.  In my day to day life I often (usually for the best!) have every minute and every possibility for disaster planned for.  Overcompensating for a few years of disastrous depression that left me with the sense that my most prominent character trait was "flaky", I have over-prepared for almost every professional and personal commitment I have had over the past five years.  This is undoubtedly a good thing, the foundation of much of my success.  However, the moments where I find myself under-prepared (I had packed some food, after all, but not a whole dinner) or when plans go awry (see: black market bus transport to Suzdal when official bus not operating), are the times where I have been the most surprisingly delighted by the generosity of others.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Journeying back towards my life at home.

I've promised myself that I wasn't allowed to blog until I finished my final papers for the semester...which are still in progress.  But I am so flooded with mixed feelings as I hurtle into the last ten days of my time abroad that I want to share at least some of it beyond the pages of my personal journal.

I just returned from nine days on the Trans-Siberian Railroad- an experience that I am still having trouble putting my mind around- 5,000 kilometers and nine days of traveling at breakneck pace (the Oregon Trail computer game would have put us at "grueling" and we would have all died of cholera) and we only went half-way across this nearly unfathomably massive behemoth of a country. I have much to write about in the coming months- expect many political, philosophical, sociological, gender related and goofy posts over the next ten weeks once I return to the U.S. and have time for a little existential navel gazing type writing time.

The thing that I most want to put down immediately, however, has little to do with the traveling I have done over the past three weeks- the past two in Siberia, and the one before it in the U.S. for a conference- and has everything to do with returning.  In the three weeks I was away from Moscow winter became spring, one semester changed to another, and the routine I had settled into during my first eight weeks here has abruptly shifted.  My days were mostly filled with practicing Russian in class and with a private tutor, and in both activities I had been accompanied by my friend Mathieu, forging a lovely friendship in the process built on a mutual love of politics and shared torturous attempts to fumble our way through learning a challenging language at lightning speed.  My time not in class was spent goofing around with my roommates, or with the friends I have made in my dorm and through my floormates' friends. Now my time is filled trying to cram in all of the things that I still feel like I want to see before I leave Moscow, and trying to ignore how much I am going to miss the friends I have made in the time I have lived here.

Moscow itself has changed too. The snow is gone, women on Arbat have traded fur coats for long flowing skirts and colorful wedge heels.  Couples are walking hand in hand, rather than cuddled up arm and arm to fight off the chill (or because the chill made a great excuse for public canoodling).  I can walk quickly on the sidewalk, unafraid of slipping on black ice lurking under the latest layer of snow.  There are even tulips blooming outside of our dorm; the day I left for the U.S. a fresh layer of seven inches of snow had graced the same path where the blossoms are now pushing up through the soft earth.  The seasons have switched, and my thoughts feel caught in transition as well.  My calendar two weeks from now is marked up with appointments for work and social engagements with my friends from home.  I am having a hard time straddling staying in the present with the future so quickly zooming towards me.

I had dinner with Mathieu this evening to catch up- after a shared 12 hours of class time plus six hours of metro time per week, he had become by default the person I spent the most time with here and, luckily for me, one of the people whom I have come to enjoy hanging out with the most.  Three weeks of political news to chew on and recounting of adventures in Siberia soon gave way to talking about what I am looking forward to in going home, and the thing that keeps occurring to me is that I am really looking forward to being 28 again.  Right now I am living in a dorm, surrounded by people on average six-eight years younger than me (or in the case of my dorm neighbors, 10 years- minus ten points to Anton for calling me a pedophile when I gave him a hug).  For these past three months, I have felt like I am 22 again.  At home, I have a partner, a dog, an extended family, long standing friendships that have spanned decades, a rent payment, job, and even a (very poorly tended) garden: Responsibility abounds.  For the first several weeks I was in Moscow, it felt exciting to be unhinged from the day to day routines that moor me to my life.  I could sleep late (no dog to walk, no job to get to), go to class early just to read something that interested me (no overwhelming reading load since I am only taking two classes and no research), and decide to take a weekend trip at the drop of a hat (no schedules to coordinate around extended family or partner).

This was fun for a little while, exhilarating to have so much free time to explore a new city and meet new people.  As the days have rolled into weeks have built into months though, I am longing more and more for the commitments that frame my daily life at home.  I like waking up at six to walk my dog, watching the sun rise up from behind the Masonic Temple in our Old Town Alexandria neighborhood. I love that my sister calls me and asks if I can watch my niece from time to time.  I relish picking my partner up from work in the evening, hearing about his day and the myriad adventures he has had in the twelve hours that elapsed between the time I dropped him off in the morning.  I miss wandering the grocery store with him, in search of my bland cereal that I like for breakfast and a can of pesto to go with dinner. 

Uploading pictures from my Trans-Siberian trek this afternoon on Facebook, I started browsing around the pages of my friends from home.  Babies and weddings all around; pictures of happy Easter dresses and first St. Patrick's day onesies, matchy-matchy bridesmaids dresses and smiling for the camera outside the church.  The idea of marriage and family for most of the friends I have made here are still years off- being surrounded by the collective distance from the trappings of familial settled-ness has made my own impending nuptials (yay!!!!) seem very distant as well.  I feel like I have been living in a suspended reality for the past three months, a little time travel bubble where suddenly I woke up and was 20 years old again- dorm room, curfew, and almost complete lack of responsibility.

The suspended reality has been a string of shining baubles of high points: Trips to the Bolshoi theater, drinks at the top of the Ritz Carlton overlooking the Red Square, traipsing through art galleries with my Social Geographies course, meandering the streets of Moscow while practicing Russian with my roommates.  My life at home is furnished by time consuming responsibilities that leave little room for the piles of museum, theater and train stubs I have amassed while living in Moscow.

The longer I am in this little bubble the more I am appreciating the responsibilities that frame my day to day life at home. The thing that gives meaning to all of the adventures, that makes the highs of traveling and the fun of free time so much more precious is the daily living that happens in between.  What I love about my life at home is not just the birthday parties and niece's first steps and graduation celebrations- it's also the trips to the grocery store, coughing through pollen laden evenings while jogging at night with my partner, and unplanned dinners out because I burned the salmon.  The one and only time I teared up from homesickness was not looking at photos of what I am missing at home...it was while pawing through the moldy onions at the local grocery store, thinking about my partner and my long-standing weekly date to Whole Foods. 

So, as my emotions tack from bitter to sweet and back again over the next week, I am going to do my best to smile because my experiences here happened, rather than cry because they are drawing to a close.  I will attempt to remember that the things that have made my time here wonderful are the people I have met, not just the sights I have seen, and will try to let go of my panicking desire to see "just one more thing!" on my hit list of museums, etc.  And most of all, I will keep coming back to the thought that my life at home, responsibilities and all, is really the greatest adventure upon which I have ever embarked.