Thursday, September 30, 2010

I love the train

I really do. If I had to rank my favorite modes of transport for long distance travel I would have to say: train, plane, car, bus, furgon- and the car only goes above the bus if I'm driving or in the front seat. I love taking the train though. One thing that I was most disappointed by in Albania is there (nearly) non-existent train system meaning that I had to take furgons or buses everywhere. I wish the train system was better in the US. I think my next big trip might even be to go across America by train- so much better than a road trip . . .

In Russia I love third class. You may think I'm crazy (the Russians usually do- so far I've been the only foreigner I've seen in third class). But let me explain. On long distance trains, first class is a compartment with two beds, second class has four and third class has no compartments, just 54 beds arranged in sets of six in an open carriage. If I could afford first class and it was with someone I know, then that wouldn't be so bad. Again, with people I know then second class isn't horrible, except that with people you don't know (or know but don't like) or when it is hot, second class can be unbearable. You feel trapped in your compartment, there is no space to move around, you are always in someones way and it can get stiflingly hot. Third class however, is perfect for people that don't care too much about privacy and want a little room to maneuver. I like to think of it like a big moving hostel. As long as you have your earplugs and sleeping mask, then you are golden! Except for Moscow to St. Petersburg (hot, uncomfortable) I have been in third class so far on this trip. Unfortunately I have two upcoming long rides (Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaator to Beijing) in second class. The third class either doesn't exist or was sold out when I got my tickets. I just hope it's not hot. . .

Sent from my iPod

Hanging out with HareKrishna in Siberia

No seriously. This is one of those moments when you look at your life and think "what is going on here?" as I sit on the living room floor of a real live Russian Hare Krishna and all the other Russians around me chant in Sanskrit. I got here through couchsurfing- my host for the two days in Novosibirsk is chanting quietly next to me. It is clear that she is new to all this too; it seems that when she came back to Russia after eight years in the US she had become a vegetarian and was looking for some like minded people in her home town. She found the Hare Krishna and has started to spend time with them. On the day that I arrived, they had a guest also arriving. He is a British man that has spent much of the past ten years traveling around Russia and other places bringing the word of Krishna to the people. We met him and talked to him a bit and he did a talk about (I assume) life, god and all that good stuff - mostly in Russia (after all the chanting in Sanskrit). It was not what I was expecting in Siberia, but this is the fun of couchsurfing. My host, Marina, was a great girl, and in addition to introducing me to her enlightened friends, she also took me to meet her (truly adorable) parents and we baked cookies at her house. I wouldn't really say that I saw a lot of Novosibirsk (that's New Siberia to you), but what I did see actually reminded me a bit of Denver. It is about the same size and pretty much smack dab in the middle of the country (there is in fact a church there dedicated to the center of Russia). We went to a small art museum and walked around town. My time was too short to really get a feel for the city, and before too long I was back on the train . . .

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Trans-sib section one . . . Yekaterinburg

I got on my second Russian train in St. Petersburg for the first section of my trans-Siberian adventure. The trip from St. Petersburg to Yekaterinburg is the longest section I have planned for the trip, nearly 40 hours. I stocked up on train food and headed out in the afternoon. Two nights of sleeping, eating, reading and staring out the window into the expanse of Russia, I arrived in Yekaterinburg- the last city of European Russia.

I had sent out a few couchsurfing requests before leaving and I actually got two responses so I had to choose between them. They both seemed like great hosts and like interesting people that I would get along with. I decided to stay with Yulia, because she had responded first, but I sent a message to Tanya to see if we could still get together.

With my two hosts, I ended up having two different and rewarding experiences in Yekaterinburg. I spent the first part of my first day exploring the city with Tanya- she is hoping to become a tour guide, so she looks at couchsurfing as good practice. Later in the afternoon I met up with Yulia and got to hang out with her and some of he friends. Yulia works at the university in the study abroad office. Right now there are not many foreigners studying in Yekaterinburg but that she is trying to change this and also encouraging Russian students to go abroad. Yulia is also working to increase volunteerism in her town- partly by volunteering herself and encouraging others to volunteer as well. She was very interested in what I was doing in Albania. The next morning I went with her to a fundraising event that she was helping with for an organization that works with downs syndrome children. It was great to see her and this organization and the work that they are doing.

In the afternoon I met up with Tanya again for tea and cake and then we went to see an art instillation at a factory near her house. The instillation, made up of several different light effects and video instillation's was really interesting. They somehow got permission to put lights up on several out of use parts of the factory, including a 'tetris' game on a smoke stack and a thunder and lightning display on one of the huge cooling towers. I'm not sure that I 'got' all of the instillations (do we ever really 'get' modern art), but I appreciated the exhibition. Much like the event in the morning, I am always happy when people are doing SOMETHING, especially since in Albania it was hard to find people that were doing innovative, interesting and important things. We finished the evening with a movie at Tanya's friends house and then she took me back to Yulia's. At Yulia's I was reminded again that things are still in progress in Russia when the elevator didn't work and we had to climb up 14 floors to her apartment. Overall, an interesting time in Yekaterinburg . . .

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Peter's great city

Raining again in St. Petersburg- time to get lost in the Hermitage museum? I think so . . .

This may be the most impressive art museum that I have ever been to (or rather been to and been able to appreciate, since I went to the Louvre when I was 12 and don't really remember anything but he Mona Lisa). It was room after room after room of masters and greats and then a few more rooms. In fact, the rooms themselves were a big part of the attraction- painted ceilings, gilded decorations, mosaic parquet floors- incredible. I could have wandered around for days- I was only able to listen to about half of the audio-guide selections.

You would think that after the Hermitage and winter palace, anything else would be a disappointment, until you saw the Summer palace- Peterhof. Smaller, but no less or ornate, the real attraction at Peterhof is not the palace at all, but the fountains. Word just can't describe- you just need pictures.

St. Petersburg may be one of my new favorite cities. I appreciate the unified architecture and beautiful planned canals. It feels put together, but not forced. I spent about two days just walking around and around and around. The buildings are beautiful, inside and out. Even the hostel I stayed in the first few days had these beautiful decorated ceilings! I think that St. Petersburg could be a city that I could live in . . . the cities I could live in keep piling up . . .

Thursday, September 23, 2010

More on Moscow

Moscow is not just expensive, it is also pretty great. A lot of people told me that a few days in Moscow would probably be enough, and they were right, but I had a pretty good few days. Since I left Albania this is the longest that I have been in any one place (except Denver and that doesn't really count). I don't actually like the hit and run approach to travel that I did in the early summer, but because of time constraints it was what it was. Even though I usually felt rushed, I knew it could be worse- we were constantly seeing tour groups on crazy fast super tours- follow the group, stay in line, ok next country! While I appreciate the ease and convenience of tours like that, I don't really think they are generally right for me- even if I could afford them. Anyway, so having five days in one place was kind of a treat. You get some time to get used to things, to back to things and not feel rushed.

The jet-lag hit me hard the first day and I opted for taking it a bit easy- I walked around town a bit and when it started to rain, I headed back to my hostel and took a nap. There would be time enough. On the second day I hooked up with an Aussia from my hostel and we went and saw the jewels of the empire at the Kremlin. The next day we went up to the university on the hill above the city for a great view and spent the one once day I had in Moscow walking all around the city.

Probably my favorite thing that I did the whole time I was there (and the cheapest) was tour the metro. The Moscow metro was built in the 1930s at the height of Stalinist Russia. He made the Metro stations "peoples palaces" and filled them with marble, statues, mosaics and frescos. I spent about 6 hours going around the four oldest (and most ornate) lines. It was the perfect way to spend a rainy day- warm under the streets.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to survive Moscow on less than $50 a day

Moscow is expensive. Maybe not quite as expensive as Oslo, but in Oslo I had a free place to stay and my mom to help out with the bills. Here, I've just got some random guys I met in the hostel and unfortunately they are not bankrolling my trip. Because of my fated standby disaster out of Amsterdam and the resulting $1000 plane ticket, I am significantly above my budget for the six month trip. When I was home I also had to spend some money on essentials like a dentist appointment (hopefully being reimbursed by PC) and contact lenses. Luckily when I was home l didn't have to spend too much on food since some of my great friends treated me to much needed Mexican food.

Anyway, it turns out that Moscow on the cheap is a bit hard. I wasn't able to couchsurf here since I didn't know when I would arrive, so right away $15 goes to the hostel every day (and that is a steal, believe me!). Food gets a bit pricey, even stuff in the grocery store blew my mind ($14 for a block of Parmesan cheese! Crazy!). But with good shopping, it can be done. It is also possible to eat reasonably out if you stick to mostly fast/street food and cafeteria style places, but figure at least $20 a day (unless you want to eat more than one full meal, then you might be talking $30).

The most expensive things in Moscow, really though, are of course the things it is hard to pass up as a foreign tourist and they know it! The museums, churches and souvenirs are crazy. Today I paid about $35 to get into the Kremlin (cathedrals and armory). It was impressive, but it sure made me long for a free Saturday at the DAM.

Sent from my iPod

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

America- for reals this time

So what is the most surreal thing that you can think of doing a few hours after landing at home for the first time in over two years? How about your 10 year high school reunion? Yeah, that would be pretty strange.

I was on the ground less than 24 hours when I headed to the West side for a blast from the past. A year ago, I didn't even think that the reunion would happen much less that I would be home for it. When I got the invitation in February, I was surprised. As far as I know, no West High class has had an official reunion since a least 2003, and I didn't really have faith that the class of 2000 would pull it out. But wonders never cease and our intrepid head girl got all organized and put it together- from Texas no less. I was hoping to have a couple of days to rest, but because of our travel delays, I ended up with less than 24 hours in Denver before the reunion. As a consequence I was in a bit o' shock and a bit o' jet lag.

The reunion itself was nice. There were not too many people there, since there is an a bit of a catch 22 involved in event planning- the more people that come, the cheaper the tickets, but since the tickets were going to be expensive less people came . . . Anyway, it was not super well attended (maybe 30 people out of a class of 300), but it was nice nonetheless. Many of the people there had been following me on facebook and so knew some of what I had been doing, but it was really the first time I got to go through the 20 questions about my last two years (with a few more for the other 8 since graduation).

With the reunion out of the way, I got ready for the main event, the real reason I came home and another totally surreal experience Nichole's wedding.

Regular readers may remember in my pre-PC days (there was a time before Albania?!?!?) that I lived with my friend Nichole for two years. We had been best friends since high school and when she finished college and moved home, we decided to move in with each other. For most of the two years, things were great and we had a great time. Right at the end, things sort of fell apart and we had a bit of a falling out- I won't go in to details, but just say that it took us some time to get back to ok. But we did, get back to ok that is. And when she announce her wedding plans, I decided that this was an event that I didn't want to miss. I know that she would have understood- I was going to be in Russia or some such place, but I didn't want to miss it. I have missed a lot of things in the lives of people I care about since I left, including about a million weddings (or at least 8) and several babies being born. I didn't want to miss this one and I
also hadn't been home in two years- I missed America.

The wedding was actually about four days of different celebrations- bachlorette party, rehearsal BBQ, ceremony and reception. This wasn't really a traditional wedding in some ways- like the rehearsal BBQ and the fact that the reception was at a brew-pub on a Thursday. The ceremony was very Nichole with lots of singing and readings and her and Daryn (that would be her husband) who are both religious scholars obviously had a lot to do with the ceremony. I was not a bridesmaid, which was probably for the best since her colors were yellow and red and I don't look good in yellow- instead I wore a purple dress that I found while my mom and I were stuck in Amsterdam.

The first few days home were a bit crazy and now are a bit of a blur. I guess I had a little culture shock- big moments I remember are seeing my sisters daughters (who have started to become like real people!) and driving again and then coffee, coffee, coffee (and also food, food, food-kind of like Albania when you come to think of it). For a good week, I avoided grocery stores of any kind- and when I finally went in one I had a clear mission- chicken, which actually was hard- do you know how many kinds of chicken there are?!?! But besides these kind of physical shocks, it
was kind of an awkward amount of time- three weeks. It was enough time that I started to get used to things again and got to see most of my friends. It was enough time to eat chipotle, to see a bad movie in 3-D and to have a few days to relax. It wasn't enough time to feel quite normal again. I wasn't working and at some point you hit a wall about what to do everyday. I of course left getting ready for Russia and Asia until the last minute. I was busy, but there was no routine, so I know that it's not like normal. Before I had too much time to get bored though, I was getting on a plane for Moscow- and I made it on the first flight out- no getting stuck in DC!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

America! Almost . . . (stuck in an airport or two)

As you may know, my mom works for Skywest, which is one of the small, regional airlines that flies United Express and Delta Connect. If you don't know anything about the airport business (like me) it is all rather confusing. There are all these small airlines (some with only a few planes) that contract to do flights for the big guys out of all the small airports like Rapid City and Aspen. So my mom works for one of these companies out of Denver. They do all of the United Express flights out of DIA- to places like Rapid City and Aspen . . . She is a gate agent and I think that she loves her job. She gets to talk to people all day and meet all sorts of different folks, which makes her happy. Occasionally (like with any job) things get tough, especially when there is a blizzard in Denver. But unlike her former profession (middle school math teacher) the stress only lasts for a few minutes or hours and the upset people get on planes and out of her hair- she doesn't have to take work home with her. Plus, the benefits are pretty good- as a United Express carrier, Skywest employees have United flight benefits, although with some restrictions (we'll get to that later). Since my mom started working for Skywest a few years ago my parents have been able to take a few good trips including a visit to me in Albania last year.

The biggest issue with employee flight benefits is that you have to fly standby or space available- basically, you don't know if you have a seat until usually a few minutes before the plane is ready to take off, since you can only get a seat if the flight is not sold out or people miss the plane. This can be stressful and sometimes on busy routes you can end up waiting for several flights until you get on. I have spent a night in an airport more than once because I didn't get on a flight. But usually, you eventually make it to your destination.

I'm telling you all this because when my mom decided to meet me in Norway, it was of course understood that we would fly back to America together on her passes. Since I am no longer her dependent (too old, :-( ) I can only fly on companion or "buddy" passes. These passes have some restrictions. First, I can only fly on United, where my mom and dad can fly on United plus several other airlines that they have agreements on. Second, since my mom works for Skywest, she is technically not a United employee and therefore is considered "other airline employee" even when flying on United. Third, there are occasionally embargoes and blackouts for unaccompanied companions and employees of other airlines.

Originally, we planned on flying to Frankfurt from Oslo since as the biggest United hub in Europe it has the most daily flights back to the US. I even bought a ticket to get to Germany. So much for my planning ahead, United placed an embargo on Frankfurt and several other cities for the month of August- exactly when we wanted to fly. I took the Frankfurt ticket as a loss and got a ticket to Amsterdam, the closest city not under the embargo.

We had no problem getting to Amsterdam- I had a ticket and my mom got on the same flight with plenty of seats. The flights didn't look good out of Amsterdam, but there was nothing to do but go and see what would happen. We didn't get on either flight out the first day. We got a hotel room for the night and went into town, ready to return to the airport in the morning and see if we would have better luck.

In the airport the next morning, we met the standby crew- nearly 40 people waiting to get on the two flights out. The flights were heavily oversold and with the embargo, everyone was trying to get out of Amsterdam. We had not met all these people the day before since when we arrived from Oslo we went directly to the gate- they were still all outside in the check-in area and they would only let people go through security if it seemed like they might get on the flight. It didn't look good. We were on the bottom half of the list (the list is arranged based on seniority) and some people higher than us had been waiting for several days. There was even one mother and son that had been there for nearly two weeks! We weighed our options- my mom needed to be at work on Friday (now Wednesday), a hotel room was $100 a night, plus food and other expenses- a ticket through Iceland was $1000 (cheapest last minute ticket available).

We were going to Iceland.

We were not the only people to have come up with this plan. It turned out that there were about 6 or 7 of the stand-by crew that were on our flight to New York and I think many more that ended up on the flight to Boston. We were lucky to get the tickets at all and really have to thank the lady at the Iceland Air desk in Amsterdam for her magic fingers that got my mom's ticket. We met our new friends at the gate and went to Reykjavik. Unfortunately, the layover was akwardly timed- 11 hours, but arriving in the middle of the night, so we didn't leave the airport. We found a quiet corner and slept a few hours- by the way, the Reykjavik airport is a great place to have a long layover; they have comfortable benches without armrests, they are not too busy, so there are no announcements late at night and pretty much you can sleep. We woke up to find the airport sacked in with fog, but no worries, our plane was a bit late, but not too bad. We got to New York and then had to work on how to get the rest of the way to Denver.

As we arrived in New York in the afternoon, our options were not very good for getting out. But I had planned ahead and called my good friends Will and Wendi (RPCVs Albania G11) who are now living near Columbia where Wendi is going to grad school. A new found benefit of service is that as people have returned to the States they have spread out to the far corners of this great country and now I have good friends to call on in almost every major city . . . So we headed to Harlem and crashed on the couch (and floor). In the morning we got up early and headed to LaGuardia where we tried again. Because of a canceled flight to Chicago (and it being a weekend) we weren't looking too good. After three flights, we started to look at out options. My mom could try to get on a flight with another company if they had space, but this was harder since she hadn't planned for this (how could you plan for this!) and she was supposed to buy travel vouchers ahead of time to fly on other airlines. We headed over to the other terminal to see what we could gather from Delta, JetBlue and Frontier. It looked like there were seats available on two flights to Denver on JetBlue (direct from JFK and one through Boston). I bought a full fare ticket on the direct flight and my mom got a stand-by voucher for the Boston flight (it had more seats open).

We got home.

Denver at last.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Norway in a nutshell

Let me tell you, Norway has this tourism thing down. We bought a tour called "Norway in a Nutshell" that included train tickets and a boat ride. It was not cheap, and maybe if my mom hadn't come with me, I wouldn't have done it, but it was really nice. On the first day we took the train to Myrdal-on a glacier halfway to Bergen- and then switched to the Flam railway. The Flam line descends several thousand feet very quickly through a series of long tunnels, including one which does a 180 degree corkscrew inside the mountain. This section of the trip is gorgeous- ok every part of the trip was pretty spectacular- with a series of high waterfalls. We arrived in Flam in the early afternoon and went to find our accommodations for the night- a tent in the campground. As this tour is very popular in the summer, it was hard to find places to stay (and especially places we could afford) in Flam, the only hostel was full several weeks ahead- so we
borrowed a tent. Now, over the past few months I have slept in some great place and some not so great; since we also had ground pads and sleeping bags, this was actually not that bad for me. I would even say that I was more comfortable than in the hostel in Kiev (horrible bed!). For my mom though, it was a bit hard. My mom is an experienced camper, but in the past fee years, she has had a camp bed or has slept in our camper-van when we have gone camping. The other problem came when we actually tried to put up the tent. As Tor was using their
tent for a boys weekend, we borrowed an old tent from his family. An old tent with missing poles and no instructions. I've put up a lot of tents, but this one was a puzzle- there was a frost line that we decided to ignore and in better weather we may have ignored the rain fly as well, but since it had been raining off and on we couldn't risk that. We got the main part of the tent up and eventually rigged the rain fly so that it was covering most of the tent and not touching it. It wasn't pretty, but when it did inevitably rain that night we stayed dry. My mom was a bit sore the next day, but I slept great . . .

The morning found us and we packed up for the main event- a ferry ride on a fjord. I had never really known what a fjord was before- I was expecting a sort of craggy outcropping, but what it really is is a sort of finger of ocean that juts inland- like he opposite of a peninsula. Anyway, the boat trip took us from Flam which is at one end of the fjord up and down to another fjord and then we got on a bus to go to Voss.

Voss was a nice town with a pretty church and if I hadn't been raining, a lovely mountain lake to swim in. In fact we did see a few people swimming, but they were crazy- it was cold! In Voss we stayed in a nice hostel and in the morning we caught our train back to Oslo.

In Oslo, we got an "Oslo pass" one ticket to cover all the attractions in the city (seriously could they make being a tourist any easier?). The highlight was probably the folk museum where we saw a traditional dance performance and a gorgeous wooden church. Another highlight was the Nobel museum with an exhibit on South Africa.

Our week in Norway was over too soon, but I was excited to get on my way to my next destination: HOME! See you in Denver . . .