Until recently, I had never had a bucket list adventure that I didn’t like. Obviously, I have hit some rough points (getting stranded in Argentina, learning the hard way that people primarily speak Catalan in Barcelona, not Spanish, the time I mixed up Rubles and Rupees) but these were merely spices that added to an overall delicious travel experience. In Russia, my luck changed.
I finished my pub-filled trip to Dublin and boarded a plane headed to St. Petersburg, Russia. I had never been to Russia (hint: this is the reason I pursue my life list!) and didn’t know more than a dozen people who had.
My first sight of Russia made me laugh. I arrived in the airport when the power was out and the dull flickering emergency lighting made the entire building look comically unsafe. Images of Bond movies and Cold War propaganda fluttered through my mind. Thankfully some of the signs included english phrases so I continued in the direction of immigration and customs. I made it through without issue and found what appeared to be the official taxi desk. I couldn’t understand any of the signs or what the man at the desk was saying so I tried to be as simplistic and confident as I could.
“Radisson Sonya Hotel”, I said to the official looking man. He barked out a number and wrote it on a piece of paper. I did the mental currency conversion (30 to 1 USD) and it seemed fair enough. He wrote down some notes, handed me a paper with a string of Russian characters on it and pointed me outside of the airport. I looked down at the paper he had handed me. A license plate number?
I eventually found a taxi with a license plate that was more or less the same as the number I was holding in my hand. (There were only two taxi’s and one didn’t have floorboards.) Off I went, head first!
St. Petersburg was prettier than I imagined it would be. The first thing that struck me was how big all of the buildings were. Unlike other major cities, the buildings in downtown St. Petersburg were immense in terms of width and depth, not height. They were ornately decorated with stone carvings and covered in ice and snow. We passed a street sign with the temperature, -15 C. (5 F). This was cold.
I arrived at the hotel and argued with the taxi driver who was asking for twice as much as was written on the paper.
“You Pay Money Now!”
Perturbed, I argued the price down but wasn’t able to get to the agreed upon amount. Not a big deal, sometimes you get ripped off when traveling. I reminded myself that I was a visitor in a foreign country. I was lucky to have the opportunity to be there. I smiled and walked into the hotel.
In the lobby, I waited in line as a group of hotel stayers argued with the staff about computers that had been stolen from their locked rooms. The conversation was unsettling. The staff was overly frank and didn’t care about their customer’s complaints.
I eventually made it to the front of the line and checked-in. The receptionist told me that due to being a foreign guest I was required to pay 3,000 Rubles (~$100 USD) registration fee per night.
I turned around to the english speakers behind me who had their computers stolen, “Did they make you pay this?”
Ours was only 150 Rubles. I glared at the receptionist.
“For you Mr. Dover, I make deal. 150 Rubles per night registration fee.”
“I am definitely not paying that”, I said unamused.
Ass. I had specifically paid much more than I normally pay for a hotel in order to avoid this crap. (I had been warned.) Pro tip, don’t waste your money by staying at the Radisson Sonya Hotel in Petersburg.
I wish I could say the rest of my time in the city was different. Unfortunately, I found this same kind of treatment everywhere I went. Restaurants that were half-full of people were suddenly “closed” when I walked in. Of the places where I was let in, the food was mediocre and extremely expensive (although to be fair, St. Petersburg and Moscow are just really expensive cities. Those prices had nothing do with my citizenship or spoken language.) Regardless, my wallet didn’t like the beating.
Walking around outside, it was cold enough to freeze my facial hair (which was fun the first time and a bit worrisome after that) and felt very dangerous. In St. Petersburg, I felt like I was going to get jumped (mugged) more often than in any city I have ever visited. People’s gazes and the silence due to the cold were particularly unnerving. I have found that I can enjoy almost any situation as long as I interact with fun people. Unfortunately in St. Petersburg I didn’t meet any.
St. Petersburg was by far the worst travel destination I have ever visited.
My business partner and I had a Skype based board meeting while I was there.
“You look absolutely terrible!”
(Sam and I are very honest during board meetings)
“I don’t feel any better than I look”
After three days I couldn’t take it anymore. I bought a ticket on an overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Luckily, this turned out to be my best decision of the trip.
I boarded the train at around 10:00 PM local time and found my carriage. It was a two seater and I was hoping for the best with regard to the person who would sit with me. (Come on single and slightly nerdy Russian model who is obsessed with bucket lists! :-p)
Apparently, the nerdy models took a different train that night. My roommate ended up being unrealistically bad. My 300 pound “new friend” (who I nicknamed “The Beast”) snored louder than I thought was humanly possible. It was clear he hadn’t showered in days and his breath reeked of bad vodka.
Unable to sleep, I looked out the window of the moving train. It was approximately 3:00 AM and I hadn’t slept a full night in about a week. I was beaten down, frustrated and physically and mentally tired. Not having any other options, I watched the countryside pass outside the train window.
The train rolled through small fog-filled towns that were lit up only by the occasional amber street lights. I was in remote Russia and completely out of my element. I thought about my friends back home and my frustrations of the last week. Why had I put myself into this situation?
In movies, these scenes are illustrated as dramatic epiphanies with bright lights and brand new revelations. This wasn’t the case for me. Unfortunately, I was living in reality.
I looked at the window and refocused my gaze onto my own reflection. It was time to suck it up and pull in some energy from somewhere down deep. I had put myself into this situation and it was up to me to decide how I wanted to deal with it. I gave myself some tough love and eventually passed out do to sheer mental exhaustion.
I woke up in Moscow and was ready to rampage.
A lady walked in and offered me coffee for 75 Rubles. She made it clear she didn’t speak english. I accepted and she poured my drink. Immediately she asks for 200 Rubles.
I stared her down.
“Ma’am there is absolutely no way I am going to pay you 200 Rubles”. I handed her 75 and make it abundantly clear she will not be getting anymore money from me.
“Fine, don’t tip me”, she scoffs. OH NOW SHE SPEAKS ENGLISH.
Like Petersburg, Moscow was cold and expensive. The difference was that this time I didn’t take crap from anyone.
I had a terrific time exploring Red Square and roaming around downtown Moscow. I went to a great Russian Opera. It was really gratifying to see a completely new story (a Russian fairy-tale I had never heard of) in a format (Opera) that was completely new to me. I learned that non-Russian food (Georgian, Italian, German) in Russia was great. I found an invaluable source of help from Liza, the cousin of one of you (Hi Lyena! I owe you big time!) and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of my trip. Liza ended up being a diamond in the rough and went way out of her way to make me feel welcomed.
There is a overused english cliché that states “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.
I think that is bullshit.
A more accurate description would be; When life gives you lemons, pity yourself while traveling with the Beast through remote Russia and then eat those damn lemons! :-p
You can’t always change your circumstance but you can usually change how you react to it. Sometimes this can be done with willpower alone but other times it requires (for better or for worse) growing a thicker skin.
I find myself on an odd journey. I am reminded of the quote by Ursula Le Guin, “The creative adult is the child who survived.”
While my adventures allow me to live my childhood dreams, I inevitably (like in the case of St. Petersburg) come up against obstacles that force me to grow up a little bit. I wonder sometimes if my Life List is prematurely accelerating this transformation in a direction I don’t like? Am I slowly killing off that child within me?
That remains to be seen.
I am now over the travel wall that I encountered earlier. I wasn’t able to overcome it using any technique I had learned in the past. Instead, with this one, I learned the best way to move forward was to just suck it up and plow through.
I am now ready for my next adventure.