Ola!

Well that’s it—no more Russia.  The family just let me know that as I can’t be with them all summer, they’re going to go to an English school in Cyprus rather than have me with them in Spain.  Which means in turn that I don’t really have any income (apart from 4 weeks in Finland – I can’t even tell you how much I’m screwed if that falls through!) for summer—less than ideal.  And that in turn means that I won’t be able to afford to come back to Russia: and I find that I don’t really care.  There’s still lots to explore and lots to learn, but the negatives far outweigh the positives.

The only things here for me are my friends and my studies.  I love the Russian language, I really really do.  I’m not even sure what my life would be like now without my obsession with it!  But.  There are no interesting jobs for me here, the life isn’t good here, I’m so lonely (and don’t like the men), and overall it’s just been really bad for me.  I’ve been absolutely drowning in depression for months now, and it’s not just the weather, it’s my life here.  Sure, it’s incredibly interesting—but it’s just not enough.  I’ve turned to ice, and so at the cost of making a George RR Martin reference (eugh!), I’m going somewhere a bit more fiery!

So what does this mean?  Well, another new language: after my Russian exam next month, I’ll immediately start on Spanish.  It shouldn’t be too hard, as I studied French for ten years.  As far as my summer, I’m trying to get in contact with a friend in Greece, to come visit her island for a little while; then variously, the 4 weeks in Finland and a trip to Scotland, where my friend Lark has offered her spare room for my desperate little travelling self.  And then—the new destination!

I’m already incredibly excited, and this has all only happened the last 16ish hours (I yet again didn’t sleep last night).  The new destination is another place as unknown and misunderstood as Russia, with a fair dose of chaos.  So the interesting blogging material will continue..  Hurrah!

The Bigger the Better

One of my adult students said the other day that she wants to raise her kids to be like me.  To not be connected to any particular country, but to live across them all.  I told her good luck, therefore, in moving to Australia (which she’s currently attempting to do), as it’s one of a handful of countries which have barely any visa restrictions.  Whereas my Russian friends have to apply for visas even to visit a Schengen country (and register when they get there!), I can just walk on in, no visa required.  It’s freaking amazing.  For me.  But awful for my Russians.

After my student said that, I told my opinion to the class: that a lot of the time, for maybe even most people, I think travelling is more important than education.  Education is, of course, incredibly important, and I won’t deny having a pile of qualifications including two degrees, but I feel I’ve learned a lot more useful skills through my constant travelling than I have through memorising the answers to fairly arbitrary exams.

In the course of travelling for the past nearly-ten years, I have lived in many cities in three countries, I have made friends all over the world, and I have worked in a range of industries.  I’ve been a waitress, hotel receptionist, sailing instructor, ‘beach attendant’ (what a job title, right?), coach, English teacher, project manager, charity fundraiser, website designer, content writer, policy writer, travel agent, bar girl, babysitter, and a seeming million other things.  I’ve lived on tropical islands, in cities old and new, in towns, in mountains, and by the coast.  I’ve become independent, adaptable, stubborn (hey, I didn’t say all of it was good!), and perhaps most importantly completely know both myself and my capabilities.  I’ve experienced several different cultures, and have friends from more.  Moreover, I have no regrets.

When I was 18 and starting this journey, I justified it by saying that I didn’t ever want to get to 50 and say “I wish I’d…”.  I did my foundation degree in half-time by studying a lot in my spare time, and my actual degree (and following diplomas) by correspondence, so that I could do them all while travelling.  I didn’t have to give up education to travel, whereas if I’d chosen physically going to university, I would have had to give up this ridiculous life of travel that I lead.  I want to see the world, I want to put myself into situations where I have to use all of me to get myself through and out of them.  I want to get into cars with strangers, and sail across oceans, and be all the me’s I ever could have possibly been!  It’s only through lucky chance that I was born when and where I was, and I want to know who I’d be if I’d be born British.  Or Russian.  Or Latino, or anything else at all.  I want to be all of those people, to experience life as fully as I can.  I don’t want to be some small person who’s more robot than alive, who’s gone straight from school to uni, straight from uni to a career, from single to married to children, without knowing who else I could have been.  I want to be the biggest person I can possibly be :).

A lot of people say to me that they wish they could swap lives with me, and live like I do.  I always say that there’s nothing stopping them (except for the swapping part – that’s not happening!).  You’ve got to leap before you can land, after all.  And the pond’s big enough for all of us :).  (From a strictly non-environmental standpoint, of course.  Sigh.)

http://www.akbaser.com/StormClearing.htm

Blue Skies

…because there’s never a bad time for a Joss Whedon reference.

Well, I’ve managed to escape Russia!  It reminds me of a post I saw on facebook a while back:
not emigration evacuation - Copy

I nearly didn’t manage my ‘escape’ however—due to a traffic jam on the road to Finland, I didn’t actually get to the border before my visa expired.  The thing is, in Russia, your visa is both an entry visa and an exit visa: if it’s not valid, then you’re not allowed to leave.  I’ve since read countless horror stories of people being imprisoned, or at the very least trapped for several months while they try to sort out a legal exit visa.  Anyway, so we got to the border, and I handed over my passport etc to the immigration lady.  She threw her hands up at the sight of a foreigner’s passport—clearly not something she wanted to deal with at one in the morning—and then realised that my visa had expired.  She made a few phone calls, and then a huuuuuuuuuuuge guy arrived.  He asked me about my ongoing travel plans, and I told him how it was just because of the traffic jam that I hadn’t left on time.  (To be fair, I’d completely seen this eventuality coming—I wasn’t sure that 3 hours was definitely enough to get to the border, but I decided to be a useless human being and just wing it).  He then went off with my passport and made some more phone-calls, while the lady from the marshrutka was freaking out, asking why I hadn’t told her that my visa was about to expire.  I hadn’t told her, because I’d been told that if it was close to the expiration time, marshrutkas won’t let you on—they don’t want to be held up at the border, or have to deal with someone who was going to have to return to Russia.

Eventually, the big official re-emerged (at this point, my marshrutka had been waiting for around 10-15 minutes and was holding up the queue) and said that there would be a fine.  I said that was no problems, and so off we went.  We had to go into the heart of the immigration building, where many documents were signed and many things were stamped.  I was sent off with another guard to a cashier, where it took about another twenty minutes to process my fine.  I felt like such an asshole—the poor other passengers in my marshrutka were all having to wait for me, simply because I’d decided not to do things properly.

I went back to the big guy and signed some more things (he didn’t actually tell me I can’t go back to Russia, though theoretically I can be banned for 5 years for overstaying my visa), and then I was free.  And the thing is, when I got back to the marshrutka I was so apologetic (as apologetic as I can be in Russian, I haven’t actually needed to know many variations of apologies to date), but the other passengers were totally fine.  They were just curious about what had happened inside, and how much I’d had to pay (1000 rubles).  I guess Russians of all people are used to people being taken away, to bureaucracy, and to paying fines.

We got to Helsinki’s airport at around 2:30am local time, where it was a real struggle to stay awake for my flight a few hours later.  This was my first time out of Russia since i’d first entered it, and I was more than baffled by people being nice and helpful.  The lady checking in my bag, rather than charging me for the extra 3kg, didn’t say anything other than “just try not to  pack a little less next time, okay?”.  When my carry-on was randomly selected on this freaking magical conveyer belt to be searched, the guy made small-talk while doing it.  Everything also seemed a little too convenient: why are the bathrooms so clean and well-stocked, and why is there the soundtrack of birds chirping?  It was all rather plastic and surreal.

And then I was finally back in Greece.  From hell to Helsinki to Hellas.  I was feeling pretty awesome from pulling the transport-based all-nighter, but nonetheless caught the bus into the city so that I could read the street signs and reacquaint myself with the Greek alphabet.  It’s quite similar to Russian in some ways, similar to English in others, and then I know a few of the other symbols from studying pure math.  Making sure you know the alphabet of the city you’re in is so useful, whenever you can manage it: even in a city like Athens, where a lot of the street signs are in at least two languages.

I really need to find a male blogger counterpart to me, so that the universe can be balanced out: I talk a lot about the different men I find in different countries, but I almost never talk about other women!  In the Greek case, I forgot how in-your-face they are here.  There always seem to be groups of men standing around doing nothing, especially outside cafes, at all times of day and night.  I’d almost forgotten (the attempt was made!) how they make a clicking sound (as if beckoning a horse) when you walk past.  And they’re so voluble—as I was walking past one guy, he goes, quote, “oh my god!  Wow!  Ay ay ay!” and then starts getting up and waving his hands around.  Maybe it’s a pastime, or maybe he has a thing for girls who’ve slept in their clothes and are covered in that weird grease you get from flying in airplanes.  In another example, I went to a film just before (first English-language movie experience in a year!  Yay!  I went to see Fast and the Furious 6—I have an outrageous love for the franchise—and it was super-cool.  Except for killing off my favourite character, of course.  But all of the Greek audience were so into it: clapping and cheering and whistling.  It was great!  I’ve not experienced anything like it since one of the times I went to see FF5 back in Sydney, where the audience went similarly nuts.)—anyway, I was walking back to the hostel from the metro, and a taxi pulled over.  I waved to him that no, I didn’t need a lift.  So then he starts crawling along in the car, hitting on me.  It was really uncool, especially given that there were quite a few homeless people trying to sleep nearby—and here’s this guy waking them all up!  Living on the streets is surely unreasonable enough without having to put up with those kind of shenanigans.

Speaking of living on the streets, there are noticeably more people doing that since I was last here in March last year.  While at the metro station earlier, a lady came up to me asking for change, and we had quite a conversation about it.  I do spend a lot of time when I’m travelling talking to people, beggars included.  This lady said that yes, there are definitely a lot more people on the street now.  She was very frustrated with her situation: I shan’t tell you her whole life story, but basically she used to be well-off, but has lost everything in the economic crisis.  She feels humiliated by having to ask strangers for money (incidentally, I actually didn’t yet have any change, but she didn’t hold it against me), but she still maintains that “life is sweet” and that “at least I am strong.”  It’s weird, actually.  Here, the beggars act like they are ordinary people who will be fine again in the future, whereas in Russia beggars are those who have given up hope.  Or are working for the mafia, of course.  We talked at some length about the Greek economy in the end, but then my train arrived and I was off, wishing her good luck.  I may not have been able to give her money, but I could at least give her dignity.

This is getting a little long and I should really get to bed soon, so briefly, it’s great to see people being warm, and even chatting to strangers on the street; I heard a piano accordion (which I love) on the metro and its music wasn’t depressing like that played in Russia; and ohmygod REAL FOOD.  I went to a taverna recommended by my hostel, and asked the guy (who’s already remembered my name) to bring me whatever he recommended.  I can’t believe how good real food tastes.  The tomato was just absolute bliss.  Fresh food, I love you.

I was just speaking with two Indian girls who’ve been here a few hours and have already experienced Athens’ seedy underbelly.  They’re long time couch-surfers, and turned up at their organised couch earlier this evening.  It was a run-down house which apparently had an air of abandonment; the guy and the random girls ‘on assignment’ who were awaiting them were high as kites; the place was filled with porn, and apparently the guy wanted to make some ‘new videos’ for the ‘gay market’.  And this is how the girls ended up at the hostel haha.

Finally, to finish for today, thanks to everyone who sent me emails and messages following my final Russia post the other day, it was amazing 🙂

__________________________

My hostel in Plakias, Crete: YH Plakias

Hammock Time

I’ve just come from drinking the latest ‘medicine’ advised by a stranger.  I told the manager of the hostel I’m at that I think I’m getting a cold, and the next thing you know, he walks into the kitchen, cuts up two cloves of garlic, and serves them to me in a glass with half a lemon’s juice and some water.  I do get fed rather a lot of unusual things..!

The hostel itself is a very strange one, in a small sea-side town called Plakias.  I got here a couple of days ago, after catching the overnight ferry from Athens to Crete on the second.  I spent my second day in Athens at the National Museum—last time I was in Athens, I only got through half of it before it closed for the day, so I was more than happy to finish the tour.  The ferry here was absolutely dreadful, though very cheap, so I guess I can’t really begrudge the discomfort and lack of sleep.

Needless to say, my first half-day after arriving was spent chilling in a hammock, before being fed a gigantic salad by a guy from Portland-Oregon.  (I heard him say where he was from several times, and every time he said ‘PortlandOregon’ like it’s one word).  We had an interesting conversation, as he’s a traveller himself, and has been on the go for nine months already.  He’s not quite finished his first loop around the world, and is about to start his second.  After Russia, of course, it was nice to talk to any man about anything.  I’ve since spoken with a few Westerners, as they’re all very interested to hear about Russia: it’s a big question mark to a lot of people.

I am, unsurprisingly I guess, suffering a bit of reverse culture-shock after leaving Russia.  It’s put me in a bit of a funk, but I’m sure I’ll reacclimatise to a non-Russian way of life soon enough.  It feels like when you spin around in a circle twenty times, then try to walk in a straight line: you know your intention, and how the straight line is supposed to look, but everything in you is rebelling against your efforts.  I’m further confused by the fact that I’ve come to a fairly remote town on an island in Greece, and there are people speaking Russian everywhere.  For my first two days, in Athens, I had as many conversations in Russian as I did in English.  The labels on things in stores—eg, shampoo—are as likely to be in Russian as they are in English: it came as quite a surprise.

As I mentioned above, the hostel I’m in is very strange.  I’ve spent a lot of time in hostels—perhaps nearly a year of the past ten—and this has to be one of the most peculiar.  It’s full of people who’ve been coming back year after year (which I just can’t understand), and the age range and backgrounds of the people are more than diverse.  There’s a whole cadre of older men who look like they came here in the 70s and never got around to leaving.  It’s very hippyesque (an impression not assisted by the relaxed attitude in town and plenitude of clothing-negotiable beaches).  It kind of weirds me out, and I can’t figure out why.  I do like that nobody here steals things though: today I left my laptop on a table in the common area and went on a jaunt into town, with no concerns that the computer would be gone when I returned.  Gleugh, one of the old guys is the worst type of hippy however: the other night he was making up climate science, and I was absolutely grinding my teeth in frustration!  There’s nothing wrong with having new ideas, of course, but please get some empirical evidence (or evidence of any kind, for that matter) before using them in aid of important causes such as the environment.  People like that do more harm than good.

Yesterday I turned to the mountain behind the hostel and told it I was coming for it, and set off.  Naturally, I decided to leave at midday.  Practical timing: after all, if you’ve not been in 30 degree heat for a couple of years in a row, what better thing to do than go and walk up a mountain in the hottest part of the day?  I really, really struggled with the heat.  Nevertheless, I persevered, though not in a necessarily linear fashion.  A big section was walking up a road through a gorge, but walking on roads is boring, so instead I descended into the gorge and started hiking up that instead.  The river was dry with the summer, so it mainly involved scrambling over rocks and climbing up the odd waterfall.  I really have to stop climbing stuff!  Since I broke my right arm and wrist last year, it sometimes loses its grip with no warning.  Not precisely ideal when free-climbing.

After a few hours (of a hike that purportedly takes 4-5 hours return), I reached a small taverna, which was my sign to turn off toward the mountain.  It was another 45 minutes or so walking along a track before I reached a rusty wire fence.  I consulted the map I’d photographed with my phone, and I was sure I was in the right spot, but the big signs in Greek didn’t exactly comfort:

1-P1070783

Naturally, I climbed over the fence and carried on.  As it turned out, there was no track to speak of, and I was to spend the next few hours walking through shin-deep prickles.  I wasn’t very impressed with the whole situation, between the prickly pain and the incredibly unstable footing.  I had to climb over a lot of fences (though to be fair, on one occasion it was easier to dig under it instead, and on another occasion I was flung over the fence when it sprung back at the worst possible moment); I saw a gigantic freaking snake (at least 2 metres, and I want to say 3: it was really the biggest snake I’ve seen in a long time), an eagle, and a myriad of goats.  Goats are everywhere here, and they wear bells.  It actually sounds incredible, with all of the different tones echoing from the rock faces: just like wind-chimes, but with the noises coming from all around you.

Eventually the prickles ended, and I was faced with a few hundred metres of rocks at around an ~45 degree angle.  It turned out being easier to just stay on all fours and pretend I was climbing a ladder, especially as by this point I was utterly exhausted, I’d run out of water, and was pretty much running on stubbornness alone!  I honestly have no idea why I go hiking so much: I utterly hate walking uphill.

Finally I made it to the top (6 hours in), but was too tired for even a little victory dance before starting back down again.  At which point I took a convenient-looking road which took me to approximately the middle of nowhere.  I then had another hour and a half of walking through prickles and jumping fences.  I was very shitty.  I yelled at a rooster for crowing at the wrong time of day, and basically just grumped to myself the entire way.  It was the opposite of a good time!  On the upside, I heard the trickle of water and found a leaking irrigation pipe with what seemed to be fresh water: I must have drunk nearly two litres on the spot!

When I finally reached the taverna I’d passed earlier that day, I staggered in and had an epic meal.  I had the best Greek salad I’ve ever tasted in my life, followed by a plate of some kind of bean-y thing.  And it only cost 6 euro, it was ridiculous!!  Food here is so cheap, and so good!!  Everything about Greece is less expensive than Russia as well, which is an amazingly pleasant surprise.  And again, it’s so good.  Today I found an organic store just by the hostel, where I bought a huge punnet of the most divine strawberries.  They complemented my hammock-day perfectly J

Anyway, back to the hike: it was nearly dark by this point, and I was all out of energy, so started walking back down the road and trying to hitch.  I saw my first car after about 15 minutes, and they not only didn’t stop, but sped up.  I hate those people: I don’t mind if people don’t pick me up (though it’s rare that they don’t), I figure they have their reasons; but people who actually speed up, it’s like, “hey, we COULD pick you up, but we’re really, really not going to.  Let me show you how much we’re not going to.”  Happily, another car came by about five minutes later, and at first they drove past, but then pulled over.  The lady was obviously a local (hitch-hiking’s very common in Greece, and it’s normal for Greeks to stop), with her three young kids in the back.  She explained that at first she’d thought I was a man, which is why she didn’t stop.  She wasn’t going to my town, but to the next one along the coast, and said that walking from there would still be shorter.  Sure enough, it only took me another half an hour’s walking from the town, and it had nice views, to boot J

I think I’ll spend a few more days here: it’s a fairly ideal place to try to start detoxing from Russia.  I do want to go to Heraklion before I leave the island though, and need to be in Istanbul for a conference starting June 14.  It’s quite funny actually: it’s a ‘Climate Reality’ (Al Gore’s thing) conference, and on my application I was sooooo facetious.  I responded to questions with answers that included Captain Planet.  But let’s face it, Captain Planet is awesome.


__________________________

My hostel in Plakias, Crete: YH Plakias

Log

“You know, when you introduced yourself as a disaster zone, I didn’t quite realise!” said my current room-mate.  “I know,” I replied: “I’m a human train wreck”.  This conversation followed my stepping on a bee:  unfortunately, I’m somewhat allergic, and my leg (or more accurately, my foot) has been transformed into a log.  My shoe won’t even go on!  Happily though, the hostel manager’s theory that Cretan bees are less poisonous than ‘normal’ European bees (which was not at all a useful frame of reference for me!) seems to be true: last time I was stung on the foot, my leg swelled and turned blue to my knee, so this is a significant improvement!

Following on from the other day where I was handed the glass of garlic and lemon to fend off my cold (completely didn’t work), my bee sting encouraged those surrounding me to offer me a whole host of further traditional remedies.  I was recommended pressing an onion against the swelling; someone else advised making a tobacco poultice and applying that; and one aroma-therapist put pure lavender oil on it.  People also tried to convince me to call the homeopathic doctor.  I just wanted the drugs!

Anyway, my bee sting, sunburn, sleep deprivation and hiking-related injuries just didn’t seem like quite enough, so I figured I’d add travel sickness to round it out, and went on a driving adventure with some of the hostel’s older denizens.  Five adults in a small car on windy roads was not great, and to be honest a couple of the guys were not quite my type of people, but it was otherwise interesting.  I had one good conversation with the aroma-therapist which was nice.

We went to a nearby monastery, then to a small beach-front fortress, thence to the weirdest freaking bar in the whole world:

360 view:


Of course there's a pterodactyl.
Of course there’s a pterodactyl.
Where to put money if there was no-one attending the bar. I'm not sure why it's also some kind of fire warning thing!
Where to put money if there was no-one attending the bar. I’m not sure why it’s also some kind of fire warning thing!
The bar's overlord.
The bar’s overlord.
Jetsam chic?
Jetsam chic?
Because this isn't creepy at all.
Because this isn’t creepy at all.
This bar is certainly doing its best to 'fight normalism'.
This bar is certainly doing its best to ‘fight normalism’.
I said that the bar would be a great place to set a horror movie, and the next thing you know, we find a chainsaw.
I said that the bar would be a great place to set a horror movie, and the next thing you know, we find a chainsaw.

The road to the bar was more than a little terrifying.  About halfway down, it turned to rock and gravel, was narrow, prone to boulders, and bordered by a cliff.  When we were going back up again, the aroma-therapist asked whether we’d all fastened our seatbelts, and I said that “no, because if the car goes over the edge I want to be able to get out of the door before I go with it!”  “Har, har,” she said.  “You think I’m joking,” I replied: “I’m not.”  (I wasn’t!)

We did survive the crazy road in the end, and after a late lunch we drove up to a look-out.  It was fine and everything, very Greek: but I find that after the beauty of Peterhof in Spring, I’m completely unaffected by Greece’s natural beauty.  Last time I was here it was in the early Spring, and everything was green and fresh, with a ridiculous number of wild-flowers everywhere you looked.  Now that it’s summer, everything is dry and rocky.  Nothing like Russia at all!  Then again, where is?

__________________________

My hostel in Plakias, Crete: YH Plakias