My Worst Bucket List Item (Possibly NSFW)

Notice: NSFW is an acronym that stands for Not Safe For Work. I don’t think this post will offend most of you but it is worth noting that it does contain harsher language than I usually use on this blog.

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.

St Petersburg“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!

IMG_2228St. 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!”
“Big Tip!”

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.

IMG_2246In 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.

IMG_2303Ass. 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.

Cold RussiaWalking 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.

board-meeting

“You look absolutely terrible!”

(Sam and I are very honest during board meetings)

“I don’t feel any better than I look”

IMG_0919After 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.

MoscowI 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.

Russian Opera House

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.

Onward!

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28 comments… add one

  • Scott Willoughby Apr 10, 2013

    I’m partial to Cave Johnson’s take from Portal 2:

    “When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons, what the hell am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the lemons! I’m gonna get my engineers to invent a combustible lemon that burns your house down!”

    Doesn’t sound too far off from how you decided to approach things after your moment of clarity.

    • Danny Dover Apr 13, 2013

      lol, I haven’t heard that before (I have only played the first Portal) but if it is good enough for the sequel, then it is good enough for me!

  • Rebecca Kelley Apr 10, 2013

    I’m with Scott, Cave Johnson’s approach to lemons is the only acceptable answer. (Portal 2 is awesome.) Also, bummed to hear your trip to Russia sucked. I’ve always wanted to visit that country.

  • Phil Apr 11, 2013

    http://www.googlefight.com/index.php?lang=en_GB&word1=ireland&word2=russia Enough said! Sorry to hear your trip sucked. It had to happen eventually. Chin up, you’ve got a month in the wilderness by yourself to look forward to ;)

    • Danny Dover Apr 13, 2013

      Good point. If my alone in the wilderness item was my worst item then I would likely have much bigger problems :-)

  • claudine liss Apr 11, 2013

    Am I slowly killing off that child within me?

    Nope – just a bad trip! That’s life my friend :)

    I feel we need the sucky to truly appreciate all else :)

    Claudine :)

    • Danny Dover Apr 13, 2013

      >I feel we need the sucky to truly appreciate all else :)

      I think you are right :-) This will just make the next one much better. Cheers!

  • Leigh Apr 11, 2013

    As I read this, I just kept thinking that you should join Couchsurfing. I’ve been on the site since 2007, and while many times I am ambivalent about the community, when you’re along and cold in a strange city where people are taking advantage, there can be nothing better.

    I’ve been on a break from it for the last year or so, but between this article of yours and some other recent experiences, I’m thinking maybe I need check in again.

    Sorry you had a shitty experience, but honestly, I appreciate that you share it. So many act like reaching goals and actualizing life lists and travel are non-stop rides of awesome. There are bad times. We all have them. And then we keep going.

    • Danny Dover Apr 13, 2013

      >Sorry you had a shitty experience, but honestly, I appreciate that you share it. So many act like reaching goals and actualizing life lists and travel are non-stop rides of awesome. There are bad times. We all have them. And then we keep going.

      I am glad you brought that up. That was the reason I decided to write the article the way I did. Life Listing is my favorite thing to do but it is also important to show the harder parts.

      Cheers!

      P.S. I think I will take up your advice and try couch surfing for my next adventure.

      • Leigh Apr 29, 2013

        :)

        And if you want any tips or ideas for Couchsurfing, feel free to ask. I’ve been Couchsurfing since 2007. I’ve done it alone, as a family. It’s a great way to develop community.

  • Tim Apr 11, 2013

    My personal mantra during hard times: Invictus by William Earnest Henley.

    Just know that you are a better person for having gone through it!

    Looking forward to the next post :)

  • Drew Martin Apr 12, 2013

    @Scott: I was always a fan of “When life gives you lemons say fuck the lemons and bail”

    @Danny: Hey, if they were all fun what kind of list would it be =P

  • Lyena Solomon Apr 17, 2013

    Danny,
    I would like to blame the cold for the underwhelming experience. Jokes aside, it is sad that not much changed in Russia. People always hustle. We had to, when you live in a country with information censorship. There was not much “common people” tourism till the end of the 80′s. I am glad you were able to hold your own there. It is expected, actually.
    It is always best to know someone in Russia if you are visiting. When people get to know you, they behave very differently. Friendship and blood bonds are very strong. Maybe, that is why your trip to Moscow was a little better. I hope you give Russia one more try one of these days, especially since you know what to expect.

    • Danny Dover Apr 17, 2013

      Hi Lyena!

      In hindsight I am very happy that I had the experience I did. It helped broaden my perspective which I think is very important.

      I learned a lot in Russia and actually do plan on going back as Sochi is hosting the Winter Olympics. Although this bucket list adventure was difficult, it was extremely valuable.

      Thanks again for your help :-)

  • Joe Robison Apr 29, 2013

    “Pro tip, don’t waste your money and stay at the Radisson Sonya Hotel in Petersburg.” – Are you saying do stay there or don’t stay there!?

    • Danny Dover Apr 29, 2013

      Good point, I’ll update the wording. I am recommending that you do NOT stay there. Thanks for the heads up on the poor sentence structure.

  • Franco May 17, 2013

    It seems you had one of the most challenging adventures of your juorney man! :)
    This is a very good post and it shows how you can face unsafe places and move on anyway! It was a very good experience for you Danny! Im sure it taught you alot about how countries and people can be. So, thanks to every kind of experiences! They are all welcome!

    p.s. Moscow and St Petersburg are very very expensive in the new Russia but they are beautiful in their ways..

  • Jenn Jul 29, 2013

    A little concerned now, as I am traveling to Moscow in early Oct of this year :/ Yikes! I’ve been blessed to have been able to travel quite a bit. I, like you, am & have been willing to make other sacrafices in my life in order to make it happen. As many travelers have, I’ve had experiences ranging from the amazing to the probably should have thought that through a little more. I love cultural immersion, & was hoping for some of that on this trip; However, I draw the line at unsafe or some “locked up abroad” type BS, ha. I’ve read several travel forums & blogs re Moscow. Most recently, they’ve seemed to be fairly positive experiences. Hopeful & praying for a better experience! Curious, where did you stay in Moscow?

  • Jenn Jul 29, 2013

    Oh, and I would also like to encourage you to add the Philippines to your bucket list. Absolutely, the most hospitable people I’ve come across! Gorgeous country & a crazy good travel deal. Def get out of Manila ASAP though!

  • Cody Aug 24, 2013

    How do you afford all of this?

  • Gert Oct 20, 2013

    Great article – thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s strange – every Russian person I’ve ever met has been super friendly and kind. But then people are different when outside their own countries. I guess poverty-stricken places will always have the odd person trying to rip you off.

    Another top destination – where Karma plays a big role and people don’t steal or try and rip you off! – is Bali. Go and check out Uluwatu, unbelievably beautiful view.

    Cheers

  • Alyson Oct 29, 2013

    It’s funny because we had the opposite experience in St. Petersburgh – I went in as a cynic, but was pleasantly surprised. When we missed the last metro home from dinner, the stranger we asked directions for on the street walked us 2 hours back to our hotel, pointing out the sites as he went, just so he could practice his English!

    I will say, it’s freezing there though, even when we went in May, I was wishing I had a warmer sweater :)

  • Sanjana Nov 10, 2013

    Aw crap! Russia is on my list. I want to check out Man-Pupu-Nyor sooo very badly! But I don’t wanna get ripped off the way you did or be stranded in a strange country by hostile people. Do you think they were hostile to you cos of your nationality?
    I’ve been to France (Paris, Bordeaux and Nice), and though I read everywhere about how horrible the people are to outsiders, I encountered only pleasant and courteous people who went out of their way to help me out! Even the waiters were nice, which, I hear is extremely uncommon in France. Maybe I’ll get lucky in Russia as well. *fingers crossed*

  • Asta Nov 25, 2013

    I am so sorry you had such a bad experience in Russia, and especially in St.Petersburg, since I love that city. I suppose it is somewhat a matter of what you are used to, and I am used to Russians as I live next to them. I live in Finland. I have visited there half a dozen times and I even lived and worked there for three months. It helps to remember that most people don’t speak english – you might survive with german, so you can try that if you can.

    Taxis take extra from foreigners, so unless you speak russian you are almost certainly going to get cheated and DON’T get into the taxi before getting the taxi driver to confirm the fare. Metro is also cheap and quite convenient if you have ever travelled a metro before, you just need to watch out for the pickpockets (just act like you know where you are going, even if you are not exactly sure). You can find the metro map online, so basically you can check where you need to go beforehand as well. You might wanna learn cyrillic alphabet (at least basics). It is not as difficult to learn as one might think and reading the letters makes it lots easier to move around Russia as russian language uses many loanword.

    I keep thinking how perfect it is that you used the “if life gives you lemons, make a lemonade” phrase while writing about Russia. Why? Because someone somewhere (I don’t remember where I found it) wrote: “If life gives you lemons, make a lemonade, and find someone whose life has given them vodka and have a party.” :D

  • Jen May 12, 2014

    Glad that you wrote about your experiences. I think it is very valuable information – it doesn’t help the rest of us who are on our journey when all we read about is the positive things that happen on trips.

    Just started working on my own bucket list here: http://www.venturists.net. I plan to follow your example and tell the read story, good bad ugly indifferent . . .along the way. Your honesty is appreciated!

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