Stir-Crazy

Affection. Passion. Whatever the word is, I’m developing strong feelings for the grasses outside of the window. One grass in particular has captured my attention. It’s smooth stalk is a sandalwood pink, and its head of grain is white and fluffy. Patches of it smear the landscape, which is otherwise monochromatic unless you look closely. I’ve been on this train for three days, so I am looking closely. The pocket of Russia that dips between China and the Pacific Ocean is quite barren and quite beautiful.

I’ve used the word “stir crazy” to describe myself before, but I can’t remember another time when I’ve felt like jumping out of a moving train to embrace some pinkish grass. It’s nobody’s fault, I’m just not made for sitting this long. The 1st class compartment on the 008 train from Novosibirsk to Vladivostok is comfortable. It’s red decorations add a luxurious air that the modern teal-and-beige compartments of the 002 are lacking. There is a small table separating the cots, and a large window above the table, which gives an endless view of the endless landscape. Every two hours or so the train stops long enough for us to get off and stretch our legs. Occasionally it stops for 30 or 40 minutes, and we begin to stray away from the platform, creeping through unknown stations, onto the bustling street of a city who’s name we don’t know. It is then that I become frightened and hustle back to the train, where everything I have is packed neatly into a suitcase and shoved above the door, back to the safety of our close little compartment.

We work at the table and eat on the table. At night, I sleep next to the table, practically under it but for the pillow I’ve crammed into the gap between the table and my cot. My cot is also my chair, where I sprawl, reading and writing, crawling and playing. Because after a few days in a box, my body wants to feel its full range of movement, and my mind finds ways to help. I stand with one foot on each seat, stretching to the ceiling, or with my hand on the ground and my legs climbing the walls. A child has moved into the compartment next door, and she walks the walls of the narrow corridor. At least, for her, the space is bigger.

In 7 hours we will leave this train and never get on it again. We’ll be let loose onto the strange streets of a city wedged between China and North Korea, and I will quickly find somewhere cozy to hide away in, trapped in my demand for safety.

Devoid of a plan

We planned our trip as far as here. Now we’ll step off of the train into Asia, without language or much of an itinerary. Andrés, my companion, is so comforting. But sometimes I fight with him, because we are lurching forward on this dark train into the unknown, and it is stressful, even a little scary. We are two tiny scarabs scrambling across the face of the earth, fighting off the ridiculous fatigue of train-lag, and I’m the one carrying too much luggage.

I think every Trans-Siberian tourist must feel like an expert by the end of their journey. We’ve assembled the important and viable groceries to bring on board, manipulated pillows to make the cot more comfortable during sleeping and waking hours, invented close-quarter exercises to get the heart pumping again.

Tomorrow, we’ll arrive in Vladivostok, and the next day, we’ll board a boat headed to Japan. From there we’ll take a train…to another train…to a boat…to a train…

Slow travel requires patience and so so many trains.

From Bulgaria to Vladivostok over land and sea. We have months of traveling behind us, and months more ahead. Thousands of kilometers. The final destination is decided, but the route is unknown and complex. We will seek visas that we don’t have yet in hot cities with consulates and colonial histories. We will try to find a beach to rest on. It is difficult to imagine these cities, this heat, this beach, while sitting on a train on the far edge of Siberia, a few miles from China. Eventually, though, our imaginations will draw small lines across the map of South East Asia, and a plan will emerge, connecting our reality with our destination. It’s already happening. All we need is the internet…

Body Language

After my freshman year in college, I couldn’t wait to get off of that conservative campus and into the wild world. I was finally old enough to participate in the archaeological dig I had had my eyes on for a few years, and, with my parents’ permission and financial support, I planned on dedicating my entire break to the Blue Creek dig in Belize.

Orange Walk was the nearest city to the deserted Mayan settlement that we were uncovering. The camp where we slept and ate was surrounded by a Mennonite community. In this part of Belize, the Mennonites spoke a Germanic language and seemed to be grappling with the temptations of technology: the road was full of horse and buggies, but also pick-up trucks teeming with dirty blond children. Our camp was built upon the Mennonite’s old landing strip. Legend had it that they used to smuggle cocaine using an airplane, but now the USA monitored the area with a satellite so the airplane was hidden and the airstrip was no longer of use. Now, our neat tin cabanas lined the narrow grassy patch, two lime outhouses open either end.

The archeological work was hard, but my teenage body was more than up to the task. For weeks, I bend over a square of dried dirt in a sunny field, looking for shards of pottery. Later, I joined a scouting team, and we cut swaths through the jungle with machetes, encountering looted temples, trees humming with killer bees, and poisonous snakes. At 4:00 every afternoon, our work was done, and we returned to camp. Some showered, some joined the trip to a nearby swim hole. I, crazily, usually went for a run.

It must have been an effect of my introversion. I needed to run, because it gave me an excuse to be actively by myself. I would run down the road to the right, where the jungle crowded the road and the silence was broken by the gasps of howler monkeys. It scared me to run somewhere so lonely, so soon I started taking a left onto the main road. In this direction, there were houses set far back from the road. This was the direction of the gas station and general store, and so there was more traffic. But this populated area came with its own dangers.

The houses were far away from the road, with a dirt lane leading to the door. And in the dirt lanes lay at least two or three dogs, loose in the yard and alert. They barked at me, but I didn’t feel threatened because they didn’t move from their cool spots in the shade. There was one dog, though, that did scare me. He was a solid pit bull, with short white hair. He always ran right up to the lane when I approached, and barked ferociously. I was not going to test his ability to guard his territory: I figured out that it was better to turn around before that house appeared around a bend in the road.

One day, though, I was having one of those runs where you lose yourself in your own health and athleticism. My legs felt strong and full of energy. I was lost in a fantasy, and before I knew it, I had passed the house and the pit bull was loping up its front lawn to chase me. Turning around would have meant confronting the dog, so I kept running, and the dog, satisfied that I was gone, lied down in the dust and panted. I had gotten away, but the only way back to camp was down this same road, past the pit bull again. Would he let me pass?

I reached the general store and turned around. The sun was starting to set, and the palm tree forests stood dark against a whitish sky. It was later that it should be, and if I didn’t hurry, I would miss dinner. But I was worried about the dog, and so I kept my pace to a jog. As I approached the house, now lit up by a single street light, I didn’t see the pit bull. Before I came much closer, though, something stirred in the twilight by the roadside, and the white shape of that pit bull, tense and waiting, became clear. I couldn’t pass it, it knew now that I was terrified and would probably try to bite me. In the growing darkness, I stopped in the road, far enough away that the dog didn’t bark. I was stuck.

Coming up the road behind me, I heard an unfamiliar sound. The clopping of heels on asphalt, a jangling of reins. A Mennonite farmer was steering his wagon up the road, and I made a quick decision: sticking out my thumb, I asked the man for a ride. We shared no language, but the thumb is a universal symbol, and he slowed to let me hop on the back, with a few bundles of hay. The pit bull stood sentient in front of his yard, watching us pass but not barking, and once we had gone around the bend in the road I hopped off the wagon, and ran off ahead into the night, faster than the Mennonite’s old horse. I’m sure I was the smelliest archeologist at dinner that night.

Soft sweet Novosibirsk

Does the world need another break-down of the Trans-Siberian trip? As I journey these mystical tracks into and out of Siberia, I feel grateful to all of the bloggers who informed our planning of this part of our trip. The level of detail and analysis that went into their travel accounts is something I am not very good at and not interested in replicating. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of information out there vis-a-vis the Trans-Siberian railroad, enough that, for us, it has been an easily planned and (so far…knock on wood) executed trip. I have nothing much to add, besides inspiration.

The next question is: will there be a rainbow in Novosibirsk today?

It is raining (which is why I am writing). From our room on the 18th floor of the Marins Park Hotel, we can look down on trains pulling into the station. In the distant, smoke rises from the chimney of one of the city’s many factories. Down below, cars honk and crackle along the wet asphalt; exhaust-crusted buses groan through the bus stop, and a street cleaning tractor drips liquid from a tank with a glowing yellow triangle on the back. People walk by with umbrellas, leaving our hotel’s lobby, which offers ATM and postal services, as well as a karaoke bar and an erotic club. A rainbow would confirm what I already know about this large city in the middle of Siberia: I really like it.

Feeling this way about Novosibirsk is enlightening. Having traveled through so many cities in such quick succession, I often wonder what makes one city resonate with me where another doesn’t. I wasn’t planning on giving Novosibirsk much of a chance. We lumbered into town off of the train we had been on for 50 hours at 2 am. We fell asleep to the hum of the minibar harmonizing with the Siberian wind whistling through a crack in the window, and woke the next morning feeling cranky and stiff. Still, we ventured out, and I tried to pick a fight with Andres as we bought Ecuadorian bananas at a grocery store (but he deftly avoided my probes).

The day unfolded with one long walk, past monuments and parks. At the Monument to the Heroes of the Revolution, pine needles dropped from the trees, picking up the sun and landing softly in my hair and on my coat. Volunteers raked up the yellow birch leaves that covered the lawns, even as the wind continued to blow them off their branches.

We found ourselves in another park as evening fell. Центральный парк is Novosibirisk’s Central Park, Andres informed me. It was Friday night, and the weather was good. People were out, wearing warm jackets and stockings, dark ivy caps and scarfs, and bright snow suits for the youngest ones. We walked in the small park and enjoyed seeing the big yellow theatre with its name glowing in white on top, and the amusement rides that were almost ready to be closed for the season. The yellow leaves of birch trees gave everything a cheerful evening haze, and as it grew darker children wizzed around on scooters and rollerblades, their lights glowing as they circled around and around.

That was enough for me. Witnessing this simple ability (and desire?) for people to be together, loosely held by a public space, makes Novosibirisk a city that I’ll remember happily and recommend to anyone planing their own trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Still, I haven’t discovered what makes some cities resonate with me while others don’t. I’m beginning to think it goes deeper than sights and experiences…

Kolemenskoye Park

The staircase that led down to the gully was painted red and stood out against the light mist that rose up from the spring. Francine let a woman pass Her on the steps. She wore a brown coat, and a crown of leaves haloed her head. On such a mature woman the look was majestic, if a little unusual, thought Francine. The woman passed with a nod, and walked on to blend into the yellow leaves of the forest.

Kolemenskoye park, in the south of Moscow, had become Francine’s Sunday refuge soon after she moved to the city 6 months ago. The park was carefully maintained and heavily trafficked, but mystery managed to hover around the knobby branches of the apple trees, and near the tombstones of the orthodox church’s overgrown cemetery. The public orchards reminded Francine of her family’s fruit grove back home in Minnesota, where she used to spend days wandering along the shore of their small pond. In Kolemenskoye Park, the trees were tied with colorful ribbons. Once she had seen a man, bare chested, anointing himself with the water from the spring. And now there was this woman, dressed as the Queen on the Forest with her crown of leaves. As soothing as the park was, it was also full of reminders that she was far from home.

At the bottom of the staircase, the sound of the spring was loud. It’s path had been guided in some places with smooth round stones. But the rocks were eroding and the stream bed spread, matting the soft grasses into mud. The mist blew off of the stream, shifting into the banks of purple foxgloves and becoming thicker and heavier, and impenetrable to the eye.

Francine was alone here. Over by the bridge, where she had once seen the bare chested man ritualizing in the water, there was nothing but the morphing shadows of mist. It muffled every sound but the popping stream. There was a sudden small explosion by Francine’s arm as one of the foxglove’s seedpods popped, launching the ripe seeds against her bare skin. She brushed her hand over the plant and more seedpods sprang open. It was a miniature fireworks display, fit for a fairy, and Francine remembered how she and her sister used to play with the flowers they found around the orchard, pretending that they were dresses. Francine wondered if her sister’s daughter was old enough to play fairy games. She tried to calculate how many years had passed since they had last spoken, but with a brush of her hand dismissed that line thinking. Seeds sprang out of their pods and scattered over the mud at her feet, and Francine remembered again why she had come down to the gully.

Moscow vs. St. Petersburg?

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (St. Basil’s Cathedral)

Over the past two months, Andrés and I have passed though many cities and towns. We’ve been to lots of churches, lounged at several beaches, and eaten dozens of bowls of phô (and we haven’t even made it to Vietnam yet!). It isn’t difficult to enjoy it all, but to really relish the experiences we’re having, I find myself craving a hierarchy.

Several times a day I ask Andres, “Which did you like better…” He knows that my brain has already arranged our experiences in an elaborate matrix, raking our daily toils based on their sensory and emotional appeal. And though I like to spend time detailing pros and cons of every piece of pierogi I try, what I most enjoy is deciding that, for no particular reason at all, I just prefer one experience over the other.

And so, acknowledging that there is an age-old rivalry between the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and recognizing that I’m only spending a few days in each city, I’m going to make the following bold statement: I love Moscow, and I just liked St. Petersburg. Something about these two cities begs a comparison. And I have fabricated reasons for my preference!

Moscow is dirtier. What can I say: I left Boston for New York. I like a dirty city. Based on my internet research, there is actually evidence that points to Moscow being a cleaner city than St. Petersburg. However, my short autumnal impressions are that Moscow has just a little more muck in the subway, and a little more paper plastered to the walls of buildings. It just comes across as a little more ramshackle, and that’s the way I like it.

Moscow is more populous, and so the sidewalks are healthily lively. In St. Petersburg, I felt rather alone walking around the neighborhood south of the Mariinsky theatre. I’m going to hide my third claim, that Moscow is friendlier, in this paragraph, because I think the two are related. With 12.19 million fellow residents, maybe Muscovites don’t have time to put on airs. If we use both cities’ extensive metro systems as microcosms of the cities themselves, I have noted more eye contact, more friendly gestures, and much more assistance here [in the Moscow subway, the veins of the city] than there [in St. Petersburg’s].

The never ending metro escalators.

Moscow has the Red Square. I wasn’t prepared for the immense beauty of this place. We walked over on a rainy night and had it practically to ourselves. Thrilling. (We also went during the day to see Lenin’s embalmed body, but I don’t think that’s relevant to this particular rivalry, so I’ll leave that to a different rumination.)

I just like it more. We walked off the train and onto the streets and I knew it: Moscow is one of my kindred cities. I have traveled enough to recognize the feeling I get in one of these places: I’m relaxed, I’m curious, I am excited to hit the streets. I’m delighted by the ordinary quirks that every place has: Green balloons around a McDonald’s entrance? How wonderful!

Maybe in another post I’ll explore my quack theory about energy vibrations causing certain cities to resonate with certain people ( :D). For now, I’ll just throw my less-than-two-cents into the bucket: I really like Moscow.

Visiting an Illusion

I came to know a city last week that I have dreamed about for years. St. Petersburg, in my imagination, was a city of golden domes and glossy nesting dolls. Of ballet and vodka and rosy cheeks. The name itself is regal, and I imagined St. Petersburg as the twinkling setting of every fairy tale I loved as a child.

St. Petersburg was our entrance to Russia. Russia, a shadowy mammoth of a country, and St. Petersburg its glittering eye, or a gleaming tooth that shows through a smile. Except that smiles don’t come very easily here, I soon discovered. At the Finlyandski train station, we used apps and the Cyrillic alphabet to buy metro tickets and join the stream of Peterburgstys descending deep into the belly of the city on a long escalator. The machine, a conveyor belt for humans, felt solidly made under my feet, but old. A uniformed woman at the bottom sat in a small glass box, watching the faces of rush hour gliding up and down. So many faces! Where did they go once we made it to the street?

I didn’t know that St. Petersburg is full of canals. The canals are spanned by low bridges. The sidewalks are made of large chunks of smooth rock. From any bridge, any sidewalk, I could look up and see the gold painted domes of a cathedral looming over the low blocks of buildings. In early October, the parks are still green. The plazas are monumental. The obelisks are tall. The traffic is bad. St. Petersburg is grand and golden against the cloudy sky, not the enchanted city I had imagined. It’s starker, more solemn, and no longer a figment of my imagination.

Vøringfossen

My model and I took a hike in Norway. The tourist brochure lured us city folk in by describing the walk to Vøringfossen as being a ideal for families, an easy ~4 kilometers out and back, with views of the waterfalls from below. Andrés only wears hiking boots so he was naturally prepared. I somehow believed that one pair of white sneakers would get me through 5 months of traveling. This hike put that fashion choice to the test.

The glaze of a light, constant, rain made the many rock slides we hiked over very slippery. Where there weren’t rocks, there was mud, and the 1000 ft decent into the river valley required all of our limbs and vigilance. We made it, and without any major injury to our bodies or our shoes. After witnessing the falls from below, we hiked back to the car and drove up to the top of the mountain, where we could watch the river valley winding towards the fjord in its new autumn yellows.

For those traveling to the Hardanger region of Norway, this hike is worth a try. As usual, wear your sturdiest shoes (my white Reebocks held up ok) and wear a few layers: temperatures here plummet when the sun goes behind a cloud.

Parking is located on the side of a short stretch of road between tunnels: if you are traveling from Eidfjord, park at the information turnoff directly after leaving the Mabøtunnelen to the right, before the road enters another circular tunnel. There you will see a sign for the path to Vøringfossen. Follow the road for about a quarter mile: it goes under the highway and along the mountainside until a path cuts down to the right into the forest. From here, you will be heading mostly downwards over muddy and rocky paths until you reach the suspension bridge. Walk a little farther and the mist of the impressive waterfall will be soaking your clothes.

Guesting

While we were in Berlin, Andrés and I visited a few friends scattered around Germany. These are old friends, from different stages in our lives. Friends who we might never have mentioned to one another if we hadn’t been in their vicinity. They all very generously made time and space for us, rearranging so that we could be comfortable as their guests. Ironically, the knowledge of their sacrifices is what made me uncomfortable!

I try to be a generous and considerate guest. These seem like qualities that would make me an easy person to have over: I’ve learned for the mistakes of some of the guests I’ve hosted, who were happy to fill up my time and space without showing any indication of their appreciation. But after exhausting myself yet again with my own non-stop dinner conversation, after awkwardly paying for yet another round of drinks, and thanking our hosts for the hundredth time for their hospitality, I knew it was time to reconsider the limits of my “generosity” and “consideration.” My feeling of indebtedness was sucking all of the fun out of a rare chance to visit.

I blame my discomfort as a guest on being out of practice: in New York, I haven’t seen most of my friends’ homes. It’s much more common that we spend time together somewhere public, like a museum or a restaurant. As for spending the night at another person’s house…now that I live with my boyfriend, that is something I only do at my parents’ (where being a guest is a whole different art form, unfortunately for them). For the future me and other sensitive souls who struggle with graciously accepting generosity, here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with for striking that fine balance between consideration and discomfort when staying at someone’s house.

1) Unless you have a very good reason to think otherwise, assume that your host is happy that you are there, and don’t think about it again.

2) Bring a gift. Something that is nice, and personal if possible. You can calibrate the size/value of your gift depending on the length of your stay. We did not plan ahead, so we resorted to small, impersonal food items. I was not satisfied with these offerings, and in the end I bought everyone dinner, drinks…it went on and on.

3) Leave a thank you note. Between the gift and the note, you have done your thanking duty. Use “thank you” sparingly beyond that.

4) Unless your host wants to spend every moment together, come up with plans for yourself outside of the house and communicate them clearly. Make sure that they know that they are welcome to join you, but also give them the chance to use your out-of-the-house time to do whatever they have to do.

5) Accept what your hosts offer graciously, without much protest. If they’re offering you their bedroom to sleep, or a ride to the train, its because they can and because they want to. Thank them and leave it at that!

I don’t know why I’ve developed into such an apologetic guest, but this recent experience of staying with so many pragmatic Europeans showed me how annoying a sheepish guest can be. Do you have any “guesting” tips to add to my list?

Our hosts in Konstanz brought us swimming.