My Tayrona

After my post the other day, I got talking to two German guys in my room.  (Germans being, along with Australians, a constant feature of hostels).  Somehow it ended up in a really intense discussion about parenting techniques, which was a little random!  One of them, Sebastian, who I was originally confused by as he has a strong Australian accent, left the room, and Marco asked me what I was doing the next day.  I said that I didn’t really know, but that I was thinking of going to Tayrona National Park.  He said that was what his compatriot was doing, and why didn’t I join him?  I was initially hesitant (and even more so when S later said that he and his friend, Frank, were leaving at 7am), but figured at least it would motivate me to do something with my day!

6am rolled round, and I’d had not a lot of sleep.  The hostel I was in, La Brisa Loca, was cranking music from the bar til around 4am, and I’d stupidly chosen to stay in a room with a fan but no A/C.  Putting wet clothes on myself helped, but it was still steamy!  Nevertheless, I managed to hoist myself out of bed and made it to the supermarket before awaiting the guys at the bus stop.  While waiting, a Colombian man came up to  me and surprise-hand-shaked me.  You know when someone walks up to you with supreme confidence and their hand out, and you automatically grab it because you think you’re supposed to know them?  Well, that happened.  He then wouldn’t let go of it, and proceeded to hit on me in Spanish.  Needless to say, other than his tone and his bearing (and the fact that the men all around me in the marketplace were giggling), I had no idea what was going on.  At one point the guy pointed to my eyes, then mimed cutting his throat, then grabbed his heart.  Either my eyes were figuratively killing him, or he wanted to kill me, take them with him and create some kind of necklace out of them.  I was still trying to recover my hand and insisting that no, I didn’t want to go and drink the Colombian poison he had with him.  Luckily, at this point, the shop-keeper behind me, who’d previously helped me to open a drink, intervened and smuggled me into his store.

Shortly afterward, the bus driver said that my ‘dos amigos’ had arrived, and sure enough, they had.  It was pretty easy to tell who was with me: they were the only other Westerners in the market.  So we piled into the van (which was freaking amazing, btw: the door was barely hanging on, the walls were incredibly rusty, and it apparently had a maximum of three gears) and off we went.

We arrived at the second entrance to Tayrona and got going.  Someone had suggested it to Sebastian because we could walk in there, and it would be a longish way but almost entirely downhill to the main entrance, from where we could bus home.  Mannn am I glad that was the way we went: after an initial bit of uphill, where I just about died and started to match my red t-shirt, it was downhill the rest of the way.  As was the conversation haha.

It was a freaking great day actually, I had so much fun (I’ll have to post photos later though, I seem to have left my camera back in the hostel—where neither the internet nor the water is working).  The first couple of hours, which Frank attempted in jeans, were through gorgeous jungle.  We saw a snake (it was a snake!!  it was!!), beautifully coloured lizards, amazing butterflies (including one huge, electric blue one), and so so many ants.   They’d created roads which would go for tens if not hundreds of metres at a time, with one chain going to a food source or some such, and the chain in the other direction carrying things back to the nest.  We may have played with them for quite a long time.

Eventually, after a short stop in the old settlement of Pueblito, we reached a beach, and I was destroyed.  Definitely a big part of it is my incredibly low level of fitness (though happily the guys gave me rest breaks when I needed them).  However in addition to that, I haven’t really been able to eat in Colombia.  I don’t know whether it’s the heat (though Bogota would argue against that), the altitude (though Santa Marta would argue against that) or the malaria tablets I’ve been taking, but I just can’t manage it.  One medium-sized meal a day is about all I can cope with—yesterday, all I managed was a bag of crisps and half a biscuit.  So my energy levels are a little low, as you can imagine!

We stopped briefly at the beach for a well-deserved swim.  By this point we’d been hiking for hours in the tropical heat, and all looked as though we were showering-in-clothes enthusiasts.  However we couldn’t stop long, as we still had a couple more hours to the main entrance, and didn’t want to miss the last bus back to Santa Marta.  Soon enough, it was on the road again (‘road’, in this case, being a very loose term: horses had destroyed the ground so much that it was barely a path).  I honestly don’t know how I did it.  Stubbornness, perhaps?  With only around half an hour left, we saw some tiny monkeys, and then all of a sudden it was dark.  Next thing you know, the rains had started.  It was so much fun!  S had an umbrella and took my non-water-happy items, while Frank went and got changed into his full German Border Control waterproofs.  I, meanwhile, was at least as happy as a super-happy duck, and had a great time being rained on, jumping in puddles and getting stuck in mud.  It may have been my favourite part of the day.  I haven’t been tropical-rained-on since living on Hayman Island in the Whitsundays (Aus), and it makes me so happy.  I remember once on Hayman, a colleague and I had to do some boat-work and it started to rain so much that we couldn’t see.  I held my hands above my face so that I could breathe: though it was still hard to breathe when I was laughing so much at my colleague throwing a tanty about the rain.  Best!

We made it to the car-park; but, no bus.  So we continued walking toward the main road.  I was sufficiently hyper about the rain to magically have energy again, and was having a lovely time.  This energy pretty much ran out when we reached the road however, and it was only through the urgings of our fearless leader Sebastian that exhausted-me and non-assertive-Frank made it onto a bus.

Once back at the hostel, it was time for a shower (meaning that during the day, I had been sweat-wet, ocean-wet, shower-wet, sweat-wet, rain-wet, then shower-wet once more: lucky my tattoo’s healed!), then I went to the supermarket with Marco for alcomahols and shared a pizza with S.  Frank had disappeared, and I can’t blame him.  At one point I scuttled off to my bed for a lie-down.  I didn’t want to go to sleep, as my plan was drinking with the guys that night, but my body couldn’t stand being non-horizontal any more!  Then it was to the roof for some drinks.  We tried to venture for a night out to Taganga at around midnight, but it was all closed, so returned to the hostel bar before the roof once more.  I was sitting with S, an English guy (Alexis), and two Swiss guys whose names I completely didn’t get at any point (traditional good form).  Marco also reappeared at some point.  Next thing you know, it’s 4am.  Everything was starting to die down, so it was pretty much off to bed.

Yet again I got very little sleep (yayyyyy two hours), but a shower was enough of a motivation to get me up.  I debated staying in Santa Marta for another day, but felt there wasn’t that much else to see, and how could I top the previous 24 hours?  So I decided to head to the aquarium, then catch the 15:30 to Cartagena.

Frank reappeared again, and we kind of bullied him into coming to the aquarium with me.  He and I piled into a taxi to the dock, grabbed a boat, and it occurred to me that I completely didn’t have enough time for these sorts of shenanigans.  We reached the aquarium, and I told the boat driver that I didn’t have time so would go back.  Frank said “oh, I’ll come with you.”  To which I said no, and ordered him out of the boat.  On one side he had the boat driver trying to help him out of the boat, and on the other side me saying ‘Get out of the boat, Frank!  Go to the aquarium!!’, and he couldn’t really help complying.  Peer pressure, much?

It was then a further couple of boats to get me back to where I could get to Santa Marta, and in the end I somehow didn’t pay for any of them.  So I got a lovely water tour for free—win!  Then it was finding a taxi and just getting back to the hostel in time.  Haha nearly 24 hours later, i’ve done little but sleep, though I’m thinking of going to a volcano this afternoon where I can play in the mud.  As if that won’t be unreal.

It’s weird in a way—yesterday reminded me of everything I love about travelling, and how going on adventures with people you’ve just met can be the best thing ever.  Today on the other hand I feel like I want to know awesome people for doses of more than 24 hours!  I love meeting other proper, long-term travellers (as per Marco and Sebastian), because you can skip the Four Questions which everyone in hostels gets (where are you from?  where are you going?  how long are you travelling for?  where have you been?) and just get straight amongst it.  I love travellers because I suppose there’s no fear: the 24-thing is simultaneously awful and amazing.  On the one hand, you’ll never see them again, but on the other, there’s no point in inhibitions.  For that reason, habitual travellers are open, and fun, and not hateful.  Haha toward other travellers, anyway.  Living the lifestyle I have for the last almost-ten years, I’ve met so many extreme people.  We all live across the world, rather than in one place, and we’re all addicted to change.  We make terrible employees, terrible girl/boyfriends, and sometimes really shit friends, because we get bored easily and we will always leave.  I feel like we’re a good time (not a long time!).  Sometimes I think we’re frivolous, ridiculous: but there’s nothing like the feeling of waking up in the morning and not knowing what’s going to happen, of what you’re going to see, of who you’re going to meet.  There’s the constant possibility that helps balance against the loneliness and shallowness of our lives.  Not shallow in terms of materialism or of experience, of course, but shallow in that we’re rootless.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Waffle over: I’m going to go and find some air con!


Sebastian’s post here.


Well, ‘tattoo day’ arrived.  Yesterday, the lady had told me to make sure I got a good night’s sleep and had a good meal beforehand, both of which I did with relish.  After eleven hours of well-deserved rest, I headed off to Soho for a meal.  There’s a plenitude of venues there, from cafes to pubs to restaurants.  As it was, I chose an Italian place, and my gosh am I glad I did.  I had this amazing pumpkin ravioli, with sage and butter sauce.  It was the best thing I’ve eaten in just about as long as I can remember.  If you’re in London, I definitely recommend checking it out (&Pasta).  Serious nom factor!

I then went to the tattoo place (Frith Street Tattoo), and was told that I could have it done at 3pm.  So I left my deposit and came back a bit over an hour later.  I signed the bits of paper, and the guy who’d be doing it came up to me with some text he’d designed.  I told him he had very pretty hand-writing (just what every alternative-looking guy covered in tattoos wants to hear).  Of course, I was then a huge pain in the arse, asking whether the cross-bar on the ‘t’s could be lowered a smidgeon, as they looked too much like capital letters, and I have this absurd dislike for capital letters.  I also asked whether the lines of text should be further apart, but he told me he’d tried that and this look better.  I said I trusted him—he’s the artist, after all!

Then it was onto the chair.  He (I didn’t know his name at the time, but my appointment card says he’s called Sento) cleaned my skin before transferring the design onto it, just like a temporary tattoo.  I had a look in the mirror and the placement looked a bit stupid, so he had to clean it off and re-place it.  Because I have quite a few freckles on my back thanks to sailing (I presume), possible locations were limited, but we found a good one.

Then, back to the chair.  I was stupid kinds of nervous: when I woke up in the morning, I was so nervous I felt like I’d be sick.  I told him that I was a bit freaked out, and he said that he’d do just one little line to start with to make sure it was okay.  I’m not really given to backing out of things though, so I was going to proceed regardless.

So, what was it like?  Look, it did hurt a bit.  Less than a bee sting, but more than being scratched.  It was kind of like really hot wire being put on my skin then removed again quickly.  I just tried to put my mind away, and after a while the sensation of the needle sort of blended into the metal coming through the speakers, and I started to zone out.  I even started struggling to stay awake!

Next thing I knew, it was all over and done—it didn’t take long at all.  I was super sleepy though, so headed back to the hostel.

I’ve just taken off the dressing and washed the tattoo, and it’s a bit red and swollen-looking at the moment (hence why I’ve done the photo in black and white), but I think it’s going to look really awesome when it’s settled down a bit.

With no further ado:


The quote’s from The Little Prince (note that the older editions are translated by a different lady and are much better).  Basically he’s in love with a flower who’s living on the asteroid he’s from, and all he has to do to be happy is to look at the stars and know that the flower he loves is out there somewhere.  I think it’s a really sweet message of hope.

Fake Russia

It has been a crazy couple of weeks here at camp.  And not the ‘fun’ type of crazy: more like the ‘fml’ kind of crazy.  It’s also been very, very busy.  My teaching hours are far in excess of what I was told, and it’s six days a week once more.  I have afternoons free, though these are usually spent in a coma, trying to recover before the next day of lessons!  I have been getting some work done of course: the internet’s really bad, so I haven’t been procrastinating anywhere near as much as usual.  As such I’ve gotten a fair bit of uni reading done, and am at around 32,000 words into my book.  Ура.

Now, the kids: I have two groups, one of mainly kids in their mid-teens, and one of kids around 12 years old.  The younger group are alright: their English is generally poor, but they try very hard and are pleasant to be around.  The older group on the other hand is chock-full of super-‘Russian’ kids.  There are a few reasonable ones in there, but oh my god the racism.  Plus sexism and homophobia of course.  I have kids talking about how they want black slaves, preferably women who are only allowed to wear underwear all day.  Or then there’s the kids saying how ‘great’ it is when ‘skinheads’ kill Jews.  What, the, fuck.  But it’s not just that: they misbehave awfully in class, are selfish and cruel to each other.  Yesterday they pissed me off so much that I said ‘enough’ and made them write essays.  I hate making people write essays, but I needed to get some kind of discipline going again.  Egads.

Cultural differences are astonishing.  I need to point out that the way these kids behave isn’t some kind of genetic thing, or predisposition, or anything like that: Russians aren’t naturally fuck-wits.  When they come across something from outside their universe—ie me, in this situation—they do try and adjust to it.  They don’t want to upset me with my Western ideals.  Thus one kid, who has some VERY strong views, asked if I was in Greenpeace before he started ripping trees out of the ground.  They do try to anticipate what my morals and values might be, and do their best to not offend me.  They just don’t know this way of life.

They do get used to my Western independence pretty quickly.  This morning we all went out on the lake, and while I can’t row because of my back, they accepted that I don’t need a hand out, I’m perfectly happy to jump into the water or climb trees or leap between rocks or go hiking through the forest.  But the contrast between myself and the Russian girls was just insane.  I definitely confuse them as much as they confuse me.

I’ve actually run out of time as I have to go teach, but I’ll post this while I have enough internet to do so.  I have a lot more to say on this sexism issue, and also on Russians jumping into bed.  Confusingly.

Breaking Rules

Ok, so I have blog guilt.  Firstly because I haven’t been writing very much (all of my energy has been focused on the novel, which after a few weeks is ~25,000 words and growing quickly), and secondly because as of today there have been more than 50,000 visitors and my last post mainly objectified Argentine men.  Oops!  Way to write enthralling, meaningful content, right?

The day following my last post I was forced to reconsider this whole ‘hot’/’cold’ country dichotomy, after I became involved in a rather heated argument with a Greek man.  Normally I like to argue coolly and rationally, but in this case I was fed up with the heat and decided to see how being a complete dick would go.  Needless to say, Not Well.  He threw shoes, while I caused all of his customers to leave the shop.  Super-productive, right?  Anyway, while I still don’t buy into the dichotomy, I whole-heartedly agree that the unreasonable heat does have an effect.

A couple of nights ago I decided to go for a walk, figuring I desperately need the exercise and more to the point need to do things which don’t involve spending money.  As you can probably imagine, it ended in disaster.

The first part was fine, as I strolled through Kifisia past the ancient Olympic stadium having a rather lovely time.  I made a few turns before finding myself at the bottom of the Akropolis’ hill.  I recall thinking how I’d never realised how high up it was before: was I so unfit that such a short elevation felt like it was killing me?!  It took me an unreasonably long time to realise that I wasn’t in fact anywhere near the Akropolis, and was instead climbing Mount Lycabettus in the centre of Athens.  (To be honest, calling it a ‘mountain’ is probably a stretch—it’s only 277 metres tall.  But I felt, every, centimetre!)

I reached the top, which I really hadn’t meant to do (no camera though, so no photos!), marked where the Akropolis actually was, and started descending after only a few minutes.  Unfortunately however, the path going down the hill—oops, ‘mountain’—was a little windy, and by the time I reached the bottom I’d completely lost my bearings.  I continued fairly randomly, again happy that I could read the Greek street signs (they weren’t in English in this area), before eventually figuring out that I’d walked off the map I’d brought with me and had no idea where I was.

Not particularly deterred, I chose a direction which felt good and continued for a few more kilometres before stopping to ask a guy in a parking station where on earth I was.  As it turned out, I was only just off my map, and was in fact very close to a metro.

I’d been walking for a few hours and was getting a bit over it, so opted for the metro, quickly bought my ‘single-trip’ ticket, and waited for the train.  All was fine and good until I had to switch to line 2, on which Akropoli lies.  It looked like it had already closed for the night, so I walked up to one of the guards blocking the entrance and asked whether it was still open—at which point he asked in broken English to see my ticket.  I fetched it from my pocket, also grabbing my student card from my wallet.

He then told me that actually, ‘single trips’ are only single trips on buses, and that the tickets aren’t valid for the metro (despite the fact that they’re one of the two ticket types available on every machine in the metro).  He then beckoned over a female officer who spoke better English.

The lady had a look at my ticket, said again about the ‘single trip’ tickets being invalid, then had a look at my student card.  It was my ISIC card (as opposed to my Russian uni card), as places invariably accept the international student ID rather than that of local institutions.

Not this lady, however.  She told me that my ID wasn’t sufficient, and that I would have to pay a penalty.  Of 42 euros!!  I just about fainted—this is definitely not a sum of money I can afford!  I asked her whether showing my Russian ID to someone would help, and she gave me the option of visiting the transport office during the week to appeal.

Once I was back at the hostel, I had a quick google, as the conditions of the penalty document were all Greek to me (it had to be said).  Apparently, after the first ten days penalties multiply by a factor of 10—hello, 420 euros!—and then after that it’s deducted from your Greek tax return.  I noticed however that she’d only written my name and my ISIC number, which is fairly meaningless and has nothing to do with my passport.  So I decided to google whether I should pay my Athens metro fine, out of curiosity.  Almost every site said ‘no’ (something with which the reception staff here agreed).

It made me start thinking about rules.  If this was Australia, I’d definitely pay the fine: partly I suppose because I would have knowingly been doing the wrong thing and I’d been caught doing it, and partly because I could actually be followed up to pay.  But here?  It sounds like there’s no consequence to my not paying (and I’ve since encountered a couple more people at the hostel who have had the same thing happen—actually, I think the English-language labelling on the ticket machines is incorrect and doesn’t reflect the law).  That, of course, made me think about Russia.  If I hadn’t lived in the Land of No Consequence, would I even consider not paying a fine?

I mentioned this to the girl on reception that day, and she said that’s why a lot of people come to countries like Greece: it’s much more relaxed.  She posited that people get sick of the rules of their home countries, and want to escape them.  It made me really think about Australia, how everything is so safe and regulated, how rules rule supreme (and considering I used to write policy, I was part of this robot culture).  Will I ever be able to go back to that, or have I changed too much?  Even before Russia I was fairly rule-flexible (at any rate, I did precisely as I liked).  Now though, I think this characteristic has been dramatically compounded.  I’d never really thought about rules and differing levels of obedience to them being such a huge part of culture before.

I am, of course, returning to a ‘rule-y’ country tomorrow, when I head off to Finland to work at a summer camp.  Mind you, the camp is Russian-run and is for Russian teens, so I don’t think it will be ‘real’ Finland!  It will be my first time in Scandinavia, other than the few hours I spent in Helsinki airport last month.  I’ve never really put it on my ‘must-see’ places: I think I haven’t seen it as enough of a challenge, more of a boring place with serious people and good living standards.  Their films don’t help with this impression.

I’ve met a few people who live in Scandinavia of course.  I spent another day with the Finnish ambassador’s family on Tuesday, when we went to an adventure park.  There was also a French guy sharing my room for a few days who now lives in Sweden.  He was lovely actually.  As I told him, he was the ‘least creepy French guy I’ve ever met’!

Flor, an Argentine (why on earth isn’t ‘Argentinian’ a word?!) girl who was in Istanbul with us for the conference also came through Athens, though we didn’t hang out much.  Haha I think I get a lot of my talking out of the way via my skype teaching, the last lesson of which I taught today.  Also, two nights ago I skyped with Siberian Nastya.  It was my first time speaking Russian since I’ve left, and it was freaking awesome: it took me more than a day to come down from the excitement!  Plus, she’s going to visit me in Finland, so super-yay 🙂

I actually asked Nastya once how she can possibly be so patient with me.  She doesn’t speak English of course, and my Russian is pretty hack sometimes.  When we first met I barely understood a thing she said, and trying to convey ideas was agonising at times.  She told me that she’s patient because I’m interesting and she wants to understand me, which I think is so unbearably sweet of her.  This is why she gets to be one of my favourite people in all of Russia!

Anyway, time to go and throw some words at my book.  At this rate I should be done in a few months—mad!

Opinion Piece

When I was at dinner with Lana the other night, she said I would make a terrible journalist.  I agreed, because I just can’t take being told what to do.  She said that was true, but moreover, I’m incapable of writing without bias.  I completely disagreed, but have nonetheless decided to take a leaf out of what is apparently my book, and write a highly opinionated post about Russia.  Or is that two posts?  I’ve put hating-Russia on the left, and loving-Russia on the right: I’ve been so perpetually in two minds about the place, that it only seems fair to write two opposing pieces.

The blog will continue, though from here on in, ‘Russia’ posts can be found under the ‘Russia’ category tab, while the front page will now be posts from what I’m calling ‘the long way around’ (who goes to Australia via Europe and Latin America?!).  

And now.  Enjoy!  My last post about Russia, written from within Russia.  (Hopefully not forever?):

Haters gonna..

I’m writing the ‘hating’ post first, mainly because I’m mid-cleaning, and I’m going to take out the resulting rage on some grout!

I started writing these posts by doing dot points of the things that I love, and the things that I hate.  The first thing that came up on my list for ‘hatred’ was the spitting.  And, for that matter, public excretion in general.  As men walk down the street, they spit everywhere: and not just those of lower socio-economic status.  You’ll see men in business suits having a good old time of it.  Why?!  It’s so disgusting!  Of course, there’s also public urination: Karie had a man on the metro whip it out and go for it in the train, April saw another guy—positively refined by comparison—open the metro door between stations and pee on the tracks.  I came home a couple of nights ago and someone had actually pissed on my front door.  Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!?  Hoos once came home and found that someone had shit on his door-step.  The streets smell permanently of bodily fluids, and I hate wearing shoes other than boots, because I shudder to think of what—or who—I’m actually getting on my feet.  Disgusting!

On the topic of streets, I won’t miss the drunkards stumbling over the pavement or being obnoxious in parks, or the sheer number of men walking down the street with beer-bottle in hand.  I’ve seen on multiple occasions men leaving the supermarket with their wife with child in one hand, beer in the other, and cracking it open to take a swig the moment they’ve left the store.  I mean, I’ve been fined for drinking in public before ($120 in Tasmania, what!!), but there’s something a little different between having a drink with your friend in a semi-private enclosed space at night-time before heading out, and treating alcohol as an essential accessory.  They’re like male Paris Hiltons, but switching the chihuahua for beer.

Still on streets, the thing I hated most about winter wasn’t its length (though it was definitely too long), the temperature, the darkness or snow: it was the ice.  St Petersburg doesn’t really have drains as such, and everything would be covered with this ice which was down-right terrifying to walk on.  The hour or so I spent walking to and from metros every day was something I dreaded: on weekends I refused to leave the house, because I just couldn’t face it.  There has to be a better way of dealing with the problem than leaving it (or making it worse by sweeping the streets).

Next has to be work.  I think I’ve been fairly and consistently clear in my hatred for the company I worked for: I said to their faces that working for them was the worst mistake I’ve ever made.  If I could do it all again and not work for EF, then I would in a heart-beat: I feel like my time in Russia would be 1000% improved.  My usual bench-mark is if I don’t like something and Russians don’t like it, then it’s just not okay: and Russians flee the company too.
Part of that is the management philosophy in Russia in general: something Nastya’s had a solid rant or two about herself.  The philosophy tends to be that people are at work to be used: they gave up any right to respect when they signed the employment contract.  There’s no such thing as policy, as procedure.  In fact, that’s probably a given: most things here are riddled with corruption and constant attempts to clamber over those around you, and workplaces are no exception.
That clambering, of course, is not found merely in the workplace.  Russia has made me less trusting and more suspicious.  On that rare occasion that someone is actually nice, I immediately want to know what they want from me.  I’ve not noticed kindness for kindness’ sake: it’s manipulation.  That’s it.  Exceptions have been few (VERY few) and far between.  There’s no customer service, people don’t help each other if they can avoid it, and I am so sick of being fucked around and lied to.  Sometimes people hide behind bureaucracy—just fill in these triplicate forms, take them to the other side of town, bring them back, go to another place to get some stamps, take money to this bank and to this one—but really, everyone would be better off if people just acted like reasonable human beings.

Of course, bureaucracy and paperwork isn’t the only impracticality.  As Jess mentioned in a vlog, 5000 rubles notes are ridiculous: they’re dispensed at ATMs, and nobody accepts them.  On the other end of the scale, there are 1-kopeck coins (1/500,000 the value of the 5000 ruble note), which you can use for exactly nothing.  They cost around 70 kopecks to produce, and you need around 3600 of them to buy one loaf of bread.  Hyper-inflation set in in Russia over ten years ago: you’d think that would be enough time to eliminate the most worthless of coins.  Kopecks in general are a joke.

Then there’s having to confirm and reconfirm things.  Don’t bother sending emails, nobody will get back to you.  Don’t bother booking online, as Russians don’t do it (too high a risk of fraud), so you won’t be completely believed if you say you bought a ticket.  And yet I still try haha: it actually works fairly well for intercity trains.  I’ve confirmed my bus to Finland tonight twice already and have been told to confirm it again today.  Nastya rang the hostel she’ll be staying at tomorrow for a month, only to find out that management has changed in the few weeks since she’s made the booking, and therefore she has no booking.

Need to go shopping?  Need to pick up some rice, eggs, milk and maybe some biscuits?  Go to at least three different stores!  I’ve largely memorised which products are available at which stores, and so a weekly shop will take me to 5-6 different supermarkets.  Of course, it doesn’t help that stocks are completely random, and change in the smaller stores from week to week.  Food is, of course, Russian staples, with little international cuisine.  Feel like you’ll die without a fix of, say, some Mexican?  Or even some pizza?  Well, I hope you like it with DILL.  Dill is the national flavour, and it is is gross.  On the rare occasions I eat out, I specifically ask for no dill—to which I invariably get a puzzled expression.  ‘Why would this crazy Australian girl not want dill?  It’s delicious!’  YUCK.

Food in general is bad in Russia though.  It’s not just the flavours (though they’re not a happy time, either)—it’s the quality.  I remember when we first arrived, Karie raved about how much she loved the food (and I looked at her dubiously).  When I saw her to say goodbye a few weeks ago, she said that she’d finally noticed how bad the food is.  The quality of fruit and vegetables for example is very poor: even if you buy frozen goods, sometimes they’re mouldy, or have been improperly stored and therefore frozen and defrosted multiple times.  They are, not, good.

At this point I got a phone call from my Russian bank—connected with both the FSB and apparently also used by the mafia for money laundering—saying that I need a new bank-card.  Despite the fact that yesterday I was told specifically that I absolutely did not need one.  Who needs access to their money, right?!

Next has to be the armour.  I’m not talking about role-playing here, but rather about the emotional armour you have to put on every day to survive here.  I’ve talked about it at quite some length previously (here here here).  Here is chaos.  Nothing makes any sense, people aren’t nice, and anything could happen at any moment.  It’s actually incredibly stressful.  Armour is requisite, and it is heavy.  It involves being pessimistic, having no hope, and being prepared to accept everything that will be heaped upon you.  One of my students once emailed me that Russia is too ‘dark and cloudy’ for someone like me, and that I should escape while I could.  I would feel robbed of my life were this armour permanent.

Then we have the -isms.  (Not ‘-asms’, which I am significantly more partial to!).  I’ve spoken about sexism before at quite some length (eg here): I hate being treated as a second-class citizen because I’m a woman.  It just doesn’t make any sense to me!  I can’t comprehend how anybody could see me as anything other than a person like any other.  Of course, it’s not just women who are an underclass in Russia: it’s people from other places, specifically the Caucasus and Central Asia.  Russians are super racist as a general rule.  (I’ve talked about it a bit here.)  I don’t feel like I suffer from much racism myself—but then again, I’m a young white woman.  Actually, I’ve noticed some positive racism toward Westerners in some ways: people tend to trust us more, because we’re not Russian.  It’s expected that we’ll do what we say we will, and that we can be trusted more.  Weird.  Especially given that a lot of people who come to Russia from the West are down-right creepy.

I can’t not mention the men.  It’s not just that they’re not groomed or dressed like Western men.  Actually, everything about them is different.  As I’ve said time and time again, there are massive cultural differences in every respect.  I hate that talking to a man seemingly gives them the right to my body: it doesn’t.  Saying hello doesn’t mean that you can grope me.  Also, a lot of men sit on the metro and glare at me, and I have genuinely no idea why.  I posted on my facebook once that sometimes, I’m not sure if Russian guys are hitting on me or are angry with me: and that still stands.  How are short, glaring men attractive?  I’m probably not going to say hi.

Lastly (though I’m sure the longer I leave it, the more things I’ll think of) is the apathy.  I can’t fix Russia: I can understand it, and I can understand the reasons for the way life is here, but I have absolutely no power to help or to change it.  But Russians could.  But they don’t.  Instead, they will mention the political/cultural/social/ecological/economic problems and just shrug and say “well, it’s Russia”.  As if Russia deserves to be robbed by its government, to have substandard education, to have widening social and financial inequalities, to be treated as a joke by the rest of the world.  Things here are ludicrously bad.  I understand what the country’s been through and I recognise that things are changing, but it’s just a broken, broken, place.  And the people who live here don’t try to make things better—sometimes I can’t tell whether it’s powerlessness or just the all-abiding apathy—they just shrug.  And join the fight to clamber over everybody else in their wish to get rich or to escape.  It doesn’t have to be like this, and I wish that I could show everybody here what life could be like.  If only.

<3 Love <3

I like to be positive, and so I kind of hope that people read this part of the post, rather than the ‘hating’ part.  Or at least read this second 🙂  But, as I said, I’ve been very divided about Russia the whole time I’ve been here, so it seems only fair to write two parts to this post.

The thing I love most about Russia is, of course, the people I care about: my friends, students, and my adorable landlords (really—I want miniature versions of them to put in my pocket!).  Russians aren’t quite like anybody else, it’s true: they’re un-ironic, emotionally available and affectionate, and I do love that about them.  The people I know are, of course, now expected to come and visit me in a country sometime 🙂
The people I particularly appreciate are those such as Nastichka (Siberia) and Lizard, who don’t speak English, but have been good friends to me despite my incredibly retarded Russian.  Lizard laughs at everything I say, but in a way that’s non-offensive, and Nastichka knows me well enough that she’ll field questions directed at me and answer them for me, if I need it.  Nastya (both Nastyas, actually) are coming over this afternoon to say bye, and it’s going to be bad.  Saying bye to Liza on Wednesday is the only time I’ve come close to crying so far, it was awful.
There are few people who I trust in Russia, but the two Nastyas and Lana are of course included, and I don’t know what I would have done without them.  And, as I’ve said before, but for my amazing students, I would have left months ago.

The thing I’ll miss second-most is the Russian language.  Of course.  I love it.  How I feel about it doesn’t make much sense, but since when did passion have to be logical?  I dream half in English and half in Russian, and find it bizarre—like they’re somehow lacking—if people don’t speak any Russian—like part of their soul just isn’t there.  (Oh god, I really have become Russian).  I will continue to study the language, independently like before: I’ve looked into courses in Sydney, and there aren’t any of a high enough level.  Russian just isn’t a priority language in Australia.
The other thing associated with the language that I’ll miss is the sense of victory every time I accomplish something.  At first, when I arrived, it was being able to order a coffee, or try to book a taxi.  Last week it was my Russian exam, and yesterday I managed to sort out a whole bunch of account- and transfer-related things at the bank all in Russian.  It feels so good to be able to do things!  I can’t say I’ve ever felt like a gladiator given the thumbs-up after ordering a coffee in Australia.  Everybody should experience that.

Next is Nevskiy Prospekt.  In my first few weeks after arriving, walking down Nevskiy, I felt like I’d finally found home.  Now, walking down it at 11pm when it’s still light, I feel incredibly privileged to be in this beautiful, nonsensical place.  Nevskiy and Piter have so much history to them, and when I walk past the doll-house palaces on the main road, I can’t help but be reminded.

The other day I was in Dom Knigi (when am I not—I spend a ridiculous amount of time there.  Happily, the low price of books is one of the good things about Russia!) and saw a travel guide to Australia. Bemused, I picked it up and had a flick-through: and was filled with dread.  The sight of the bare eucalypt forests reminded me that I don’t want to live in Australia—not now, and certainly not in the long run.  Conversely, the forests in Russia are just amazing.  They are so beautiful: they’re what forests should be.  They make me feel like magic could happen.  Russia is an inordinately beautiful place.

I have to give a shout-out to a few random things: firstly, there’s being able to wear boots every day (yes!) without being accused of wearing ‘fuck-me’ boots; then there’s the sweet little kittens in the courtyard!  I’m not a cat person by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve made friends with these ones.  They’re always leaping about the place!  Gosh, I know I’ve been living in Piter—it comes with a cat obsession.  Lucky I’m escaping before it becomes full-blown!

Public transport here is fantastic.  I’ve gone on and on about the SPb metro before—there should be one like it everywhere.  But it’s not just that: the buses, marshrutki and so on are equally useful.  Man though, that metro!

As far as food, there’s little to nothing I’ve liked, except for Russian champagne (they call it champagne, so I can too), чудо everything (hello, flavoured, chocolate-coated cheese!), and drinkable yoghurt.  I can’t believe I didn’t like drinkable yoghurt when I first tried it in Prague last year.  It’s so good!

Similarly great has been going to uni, which I loved; all-day night and all-day day; the fact that everybody’s an artist and there are paintings everywhere.  I also love the lack of rules.  Haha of course, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have any rules, but other people would!  Russia is chaos, but I do like being able to do whatever I like, with no repercussions and with complete indifference demonstrated by those around me.

Next has to be the randomness.  It’s bad in a lot of ways, but it’s astonishing, mind-bending, to get up every day and know that absolutely anything could happen.  I never know what I’ll see, or what adventures I’ll have.  Granted, a lot of the adventures are bad, but it’s all so incredibly interesting (high praise, from me!).  It makes me laugh.

I know I’ve done a lot of Russian-man-bashing, but I do have to mention some positives.  Finally.  Way to be balanced, Laura!  Anyway, I find them actually very romantic, in a traditional sense.  They’re relationship-focused, they buy flowers, and they’re chivalrous in a lot of respects.  Even if sometimes that’s ridiculous (when in Vyborg with Nastya, I opened the door and waved her through; then a couple came up and as I was already holding the door I waved them through too.  The woman went, but then the man wasn’t going to let a woman hold the door for him—god forbid he should be emasculated—so we had to do this awkward shuffle whereby I ducked under his arm as he grabbed the door from around me, so that I could pass through as he held it.  Face-palm).

Lastly, I have to mention the empathy and passion I have gained for Russia.  Two years ago I knew nothing at all about it: vodka, bad guys, and ‘something to do with the Cold War’.  Now I’m halfway through the language, I’ve lived here, I’ve made Russian friends, I’ve devoured the history, and I feel like I’ve gained an understanding.  I would hate to think of a world without Russia (unless, of course, it got its own little world.  Maybe a moon or something.  Which would be accessible.  That seems reasonable.. :p).  I’m overwhelmed when reading about the history or politics, and struggle not to cry when feeling the tragedy of the place.  It’s a place which makes no sense, but it’s easy to see how it got this way.  I finally understand why Russian emigrants miss their homeland: things can be very bad here, but it’s a place worthy of passion.

I tell my students to write conclusions to their written pieces, and I feel I can hardly do less.  Do I love or hate Russia more?  I’m not sure, but it’s become part of me, like the other places I’ve lived.  I suppose I won’t know really how I feel about it until—if and when—I come back.  That will be the test: if I return, it’s because I can’t live without it.

Either way, Russia has been an experience.  An impossible, ridiculous, near-inconceivable car-crash of an experience, but an interesting and eye-opening one nonetheless.  Thank-you to everybody who has been here to experience it with me.