An Ode to the Non-Glamorous Side of Traveling

A Tale Written from an Airport Floor

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There’s one thing that really bothers me about most travel bloggers and their travel social media counterparts (I’m not sure what a person who ‘instagram travels’ is called), and that is they only present the glamorous side of traveling. The image you as a viewer are given is one of constant 24/7 euphoria and celebration, as if life exists without struggle and as if nothing has a price tag. I write this from one of those non-glamorous moments, currently sitting in the Oslo airport in the middle of an eight hour layover, after a seven hour flight, while waiting for another. It’s been 30 hours since I’ve slept (expect a 15 minute nap), and have been sustaining myself on bananas and peanuts… because Norway is outrageously expensive.

Why did I put myself in this situation? Well, I’ve always wanted to see the Baltic countries, and this was the cheapest flight from New York to Tallinn, Estonia. Now, I want to make it clear, I’m not writing this to complain. Nor am I complaining at all. I’m happy with my decision. I’m just doing this to highlight the side of traveling no one else likes to acknowledge. This is part of the whole reality. Some parts of travel are exhausting, uncomfortable, and boring. If you pretend these parts don’t exist, they’ll hit you even stronger when they happen. However, even with this dark side, it’s all still completely worth it.

Sometimes you need to be still. Sometimes you need to be bored and wait. It gives you an opportunity to be introspective and think of creative ways to pass the time (such as writing a reflection like this). Maybe you can download a podcast or audiobook you’ve always wanted to hear. You can think of ideas for your upcoming trip, or you can reflect on the good memories already had. This whole process is important. Plus, when you’re board, you’ll look outside yourself more. Since you’re not doing anything you’d want to show off to hypothetical followers, you can actually look up for once and see what the world around you is doing. And even if there’s nothing exciting, observe anyway for your own piece of mind.

Most of all, at least to me, the stressful and boring times make the exciting and wonderful moments all the better. If travel was all just joy and amazement, you would stop appreciating anything. There would be no more wonder or excitement in expectation.. You can’t be surprised anymore if you always get the desired outcome, and you’d have nothing to compare the good times too if they were all that happened. Let me use two analogies here. The first is the weather. For example, someone moves from Ireland to California. The first thing they’ll notice is how warm and nice the weather is. But after a few years, this ‘amazing weather’* will just seem normal. Likewise, someone who’s lived their whole life in California will never be impressed by the 350 days of sun per year. Instead, they’ll likely just be disappointed with the weather anywhere else they go.

The second analogy I’ll use is with alcohol and dessert. Your first drink at the end of the day will probably feel pretty and relax you. Yet, your tenth drink will likely make you feel terrible. Same with dessert. The first will taste good, yet the tenth will make you feel disgusting. Now lets imagine if you drink like a fish and gorge yourself on treats every day. Not only will you continually feel awful, your life probably won’t last very long either.

So yes, parts of travel (like trying to sleep on overcrowded trains, missing meals, and 12 hour layovers) are uncomfortable and stressful, but it’s all part of an experience that is incredibly worth taking part in. It’ll make the rewards that eventually follow feel earned and seem even sweeter.

11 Favorite Hostels

Friends, as I have indicated, the number 10 is lame and not creative. Therefore, I chose to create this list of the 11 hostels I enjoyed the most during the past three years of travel/living abroad. If you ever find yourself in the below mentioned countries and cities (and you should), I couldn't recommend these places enough. Just a side note, I only gave them number ranks because readers tend to like lists. I could pretty much mix up the entire order arbitrarily and it would still have the same meaning. That said, here are the hostels and here's why they're great:

11. Kismet Dao (Brasov, Romania)

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It was the little quirks of this place that truly made it stand out. For example, it is, to this day, the only hostel I've ever stayed at that gives you a free beer or other drink if you prefer every single day. And if you'd like another, it's less than $1/less than 1 euro. But if that's not amazing enough, there's even a hostel dog! Yes, among the guests resided a big, friendly dog, always there to give you a nice welcome. Still the only one I've come across so far.

And the staff was super helpful too. Blake and I, for example, had a Wizz Air flight to Hungary from a different city called Targu Mures and never bothered to check how to get there from Brasov. Turns out, there is no direct bus or train... or pretty much anything. When we realized this, we thought we were royally screwed, but the woman at the front desk stepped into action and within minutes had a car ready to take us to our destination for a pretty inexpensive fare (despite a 3 hour drive). So yeah, this place was great.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: The dog, nice backyard, really helpful staff, free breakfast, awesome 'Vlad on Bike' mural

10. Abby Court (Dublin Ireland)

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Normally, I prefer smaller hostels that let you get to know people on a personal level. In bigger hostel, people already seem to be in groups and refuse to branch out. Therefore, all the hostels I've included on this list are on the small side... except this one. Abbey Court is by far the most awesome big hostel I've ever stayed in, and even as a solo traveler, I had no trouble making friends and having great experiences.

The walls are all painted in murals of historical figures ranging from Jim Morrison to Nelson Mandela while the common area had a huge kitchen that cranks out a free breakfast every morning. Alongside that, there's a bar with better prices than anything in the city and an area to relax and hang out on couches. Plus it's in the center of Dublin right along the river Liffey, so you can easily get to any place you want.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Awesome paintings, Great Hang-out Area, Free Breakfast, Bar and Games, Great Location

9. Polosaty Hostel (St. Petersburg, Russia)

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Maybe it was just perfect timing, because at the time I arrived here, I had spent the past year surrounded my people and needed a little bit of a break. After about a 10 minute walk from the train station I came to the entrance of a quieter street not too far from the center of everything (so kind of balancing the best of both worlds). Inside, the place is calm and relaxing, but not in any way anti social. The rooms were clean and decorated with things related to the city and odd-yet-awesome artwork (like the door in the picture below). And on top of that, there was free breakfast every morning with coffee.

But like most places on this list, the staff was what made everything really great. They were all (or at least all the members I encountered) nice, friendly, and incredibly helpful. I arrived without any set plans, and within my first hour I had more recommendations than my brain could process with regards of places to go, things to see, activities to do, and restaurants to eat. For me, this was the perfect place to come back and relax/crash after a long day (and sometimes night) of wandering the city.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Laid-back Atmosphere, Very Helpful Staff, Cool Artistic Stuff, Balance of Social and Relaxed

8. Maya Moon Lodge (Lake Atitlan, Guatemala)

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Located along the dirt road between Tzunana and San Marcos, this secluded place rests within tropical trees on the side of a steep hill overlooking Lake Atitlan. Everything there is made of wood and stone, and seems as if it was constructed by hand (I never checked to see if this was true, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt). It's away enough from the towns for you to avoid the waves of white tourists with dreadlocks (who have invaded San Marcos is full force), thus allowing you to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and go for a swim in peace and quiet.

On top of that, the facilities and staff are amazing. Everyone I met who worked there was super interesting and incredibly helpful with anything you could possibly need. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks can be ordered everyday from 8am-10pm, and the eating/bar area is set up right alongside the water (as seen above). During my stay, I had breakfast twice and dinner once, which, despite being more expensive than local spots in the town, were absolutely worth it. Everything was extremely fresh and served warm.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Surrounded by amazing nature, great food, swimming, great staff, a dog

7. Duet Hostel (Karakol, Kyrgyzstan)

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I've never been in any place quite like this, both in terms of the hostel and the town. The hostel itself has a really great outdoor hang-out area where you can relax, order food and drinks and socialize with other guests, plus a fully equipped kitchen. But while that's all well and good, you actually get to sleep in yurts outside for dorms! Six people to a tent, breathing the fresh Kyrgyz mountain air (as seen above).  Never before had I done anything quite like it, but now I'd absolutely do it again.

However, the absolute best part of this place is the fact that it's surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in the world and wild, seemingly untamed nature in every direction. Just the feeling of waking up in the morning and stepping outside the yurt was almost surreal. It was as if I was in a new world, away from the noise and stress of civilization, where I would more likely see a sheep walk down the street than a car. And after two years of living in a big city, sleeping in the great outdoors and going back to nature was exactly what I needed.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Incredible Surrounding Nature, Helpful Staff, Yurts!, Great hang-out Area, Good Food

6. Matiox Hostel (Antigua, Guatemala)

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This is no ordinary hostel. There is no roof for the common area so the whole space gets lit up by the light of the sun or moon depending on the time of day. A tangerine tree (or clementine tree. I don't know the difference) stands, alongside a fountain, in the center of everything with actual fruit on the branches. Couple that with a bar decorated in random drawings from guests over the years, a hot tub, and a really friendly staff and Matiox hostel is what you get.

One thing that really makes this place great is the events Matiox regularly holds. From bar trivia (see story) to yoga to salsa dancing to other activities I can't remember at the moment, there's never any shortage of awesome things to do. Plus the hostel has a shuttle service that can take you right from the door to just about anywhere in Guatemala (including the airport), as well as locations in Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Fun Events, Open-air Common Room, Great Staff, Hot Tub, Cool Bar, Super Convenient for Travel.

5. Comrade Hostel (Moscow, Russia)

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During my last six months in Moscow, I bounced back and forth between two particularly incredible hostels, and Comrade is one of them. The place often advertises itself as being located in the best area of the city (heart of downtown right near Red Square), and while that part is great, it hardly does Comrade justice.

The staff is absolutely amazing and can help with pretty much everything you can imagine. The place is a little more quiet and relaxed, with ample room for personal space, but still gets pretty lively ever once in a while, so you can still have a good social experience. A really cool thing about this place is that many local bands and musicians often stay here when they come to Moscow to play a show. Because of this, I unexpectedly got invited to many different shows which all turned out to be incredibly fun and exciting (including a band called Dobranotch - see Awesome Music Finds).

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Amazing Location, Great Staff, Relaxed Atmosphere, Music

4. Almaty Dom (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

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The hostel which, as its name suggests ('dom' meaning 'home' is Russian) is very home-like with bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen for all guests. On the wall, there were drawings and messages written by many of the guests who had stayed while couches lay here and there, all adding to the relaxed, comfortable feel of the place. Right away, it became clear to me that I had made the right choice. And then when I walked into the air-conditioned bed room, there was no longer any doubt. This place was awesome.

On top of all that, Shakir was one of the most helpful hostel hosts I've ever come across. Whether you had questions about the city or needed any help arranging future travels, he was there to make the whole process a whole lot easier. As a result, the whole social atmosphere of the place was unbelievably welcoming, seeming to attract interesting backpackers from all over the world. So, I guess I can sum it all up by saying, if you ever find yourself in Almaty, Kazakhstan, stay here. It is amazing and only $6/night.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Very Welcoming, Great Host, Social Common Area, Air-Conditioned Bed Rooms, Neighbor Dog

3. Freedom Hostel (Batumi Georgia)

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When a place is described as a 'party hostel' you often think of loud groups of obnoxious, terrible19 year old dudes. This is not like that at all, but that said, the guys that run Freedom Hostel can easily take any party hostel under the table. And the great thing is that there's nothing in-your-face about it. The hostel is super chill, welcoming, and always up for enjoying the night (and quite frequently the day too). Tomek, the guy who runs it, is also the man.

The staff speaks three languages (Polish, English and Russian) so they usually attract a diverse group of interesting guests. And they've made friends with a bunch of local places as well, so it really feels like you're part of the community when staying here.On top of that, the place is just a 5 minute walk from the Black Sea, meaning you can wander over and go swimming whenever you want. What more could you ask for?

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Great Social Atmosphere, Friendly Staff, Close Proximity to the Black Sea, Comfortable

2. Why Not? Hostel (Tbilisi, Georgia)

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I debated internally for a while about giving this one the top spot, seeing as I stayed here on three separate occasions, made tons of friends, and even worked for a month at the front desk. Unfortunately though, the hostel is currently not open and may possibly reopen again in a new spot. Since this is uncertain and I have not yet seen this potential/hypothetical new spot, I have placed it here. Nonetheless, this hostel was absolutely amazing in every way imaginable.

The staff quickly became friends of mine, including the hostel cat, George, who was always hanging around the common area. The free breakfast was massive and better than literally any I've ever had on the road, and there were drinks that could be purchased any time at a very reasonable price. But the thing that made this hostel truly great was the fact that it really felt like a family. Many of the guests stayed long term (several weeks/months at a time) and frequently someone would cook large dinners for everyone. We'd then all get together in the evening to feast and enjoy local wine. I ended up doing a lot of trips around Georgia with people I met here, and it really did start to feel like home.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Free Breakfast Feast, George the Cat, Amazing Staff, Family-like Community, Hostel Dinners, Relaxed and Social Atmosphere

1. Vagabond Hostel (Moscow, Russia)

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Since graduating college five years ago (at the time of this writing), Vagabond was my home for a longer period of time than any other place and I wouldn't have had it any other way. I am not sure how it happens, but somehow Vagabond always seems to attract the most amazing and interesting people through its doors. Maybe it's the staff. From Nikita to Robert to Roman to Zhenya, they've each got their own unique personalities that make Vagabond the welcoming place it is. Needless to say, this crew soon became my closest friends in the city.

This haven for wanderers, artists, musicians, and locals looking to escape the hustle of the big city. Vagabond is always changing and improving it's already amazing vibe by bringing in weekly free concerts, daily free breakfasts, hostel dinners, and birthday celebrations if there happens to be one. And on top of all that, it was the creative environment at Vagabond that compelled me to start this blog in the first place. So, Vagabond will always have a close place to me.

HOSTEL HIGHLIGHTS: Amazing Friendly Staff, Fun Social Events, Great Atmosphere, Delicious Breakfast, Very Welcoming, Feels Like Home

My Story: Why Not?

There are certain decisions we all make that change the trajectory of our lives. Ideally, they are well thought out and pertain to a major event such as choosing a university or starting a new job. They don’t usually come about at 4:00 in the morning as you deliriously stumble your way through airport customs, but as you can probably guess by my specific, bizarre reference, this was the case for me. It was a night in June of 2015 at the very start of my first trip to Georgia when I realized I had not yet booked a place to stay. Panicked, I turned on my phone and quickly checked through the internet and booked the first place I found: Why Not Hostel. The name felt fitting for my current situation, so I decided to go for it.

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Upon arrival, (after an incredibly fast taxi ride) I had no idea if I was at the right place. Wandering through a quiet alleyway, I finally saw a sign for the hostel pointing towards a residential alcove. Could this be it? I thought. I decided to check anyway and walked into what looked like a housing complex and was immediately greeted by a family of cats at the foot of the outdoor steps leading to the building. It looked more like some family's place instead of a hostel, but none the less, I bent down to pet the cats. They just seemed so friendly. As I did though, I noticed another sign, pointing up the stairway for the hostel. I guess this had to be it. I ascended the stairs and entered.

This picture was not taken upon my arrival. Hence the daylight.

This picture was not taken upon my arrival. Hence the daylight.

I had no idea what to expect, but the second I caught a glimpse of what was inside, I felt right at home. The whole place was decorated in a warm, welcoming way, and another cat, bigger and more orange than the ones outside, walked by and rubbed up against my leg. The girl at the front desk, having just woke up, introduced herself and took me around to see the rest of the hostel, which included a balcony, nice lounge area, and 30 (later reduced to 18) person bedroom. Despite my deliriousness from jetlag, I was instantly mesmerized. However, this was just the start.

I was told there was a free breakfast, so, always looking to save money, I made sure to be present at the table the next morning. I was expecting the standard toast, jam, milk and cereal that are common for most hostel breakfasts, so when these items came out, it was little surprise to me... but then there was more (a lot more). Next came a tray of freshly sliced red and gold apples, then hard boiled eggs sliced in half, and granola with yogurt! To drink, not only was there water, but coffee, milk, and multiple pitchers of tea. It was all included, and it was magical.

Glorious food.

Glorious food.

I didn’t quite realize it yet, but things were now in motion that would affect my future and gravitate me back towards Georgia. Since I enjoyed the place so much, I remained in contact with several of the staff, and after quitting my job in the summer of 2017, I messaged the manager, Krzysztof and asked if I could work there. He quickly agreed, and I soon found myself back in Georgia, only now for a much longer stay than before. Now I got to work behind the scenes and see the inter-workings of hostel administration. I met tons of awesome people, had my fair share of Georgian wine and chacha, made friendships that will last well into the future, and after a while, it began to feel like my second home. But then October came and things changed.

After seven years as one of Tbilisi’s most vibrant and welcoming hostels, Why Not Hostel unfortunately closed its doors in the location where it had been since the beginning. Even though it had only been part of my life for a few months, I couldn’t help but feel melancholy as I helped break down the furniture and bed frames and load them onto a moving truck. My first home in the country had closed. But this was not the end. The old spot on Tabukashvili St (my first home in the country) was no more, but it is currently operating out of a new temporary spot and a move for 2018 is already well into the works. Where it will be and what it will look like is still uncertain, but what I can tell you for sure is that I’ll be working there and I’m certain the staff will create a new, welcoming house for visitors just as they did before.

For other stories about the hostel, please click the following pictures:

 

Work at a Hostel: Why Not?

Work at a Hostel: Why Not?

A Pair of Obnoxious Guests

A Pair of Obnoxious Guests

Farewell to Vagabond: My Story

It was a dark and stormy night (well actually it was a calm and sunny day) in late August of 2015 when a young 24 year old man named Billy stepped off a plane at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport. He was eager, optimistic, excited, a little nervous, and alone. He had left everything, family, friends, country, home, and his previous work (although that one was pretty easy) in order to start a new chapter in his life in another part of the world.

He thought he would be ready for anything and for any challenge. Over the course of the year, he learned how to handle a room-full of loud pre-teens, braved the fabled Russian winter, and even grew fond of Russian food such as (gretchka/buckwheat). It would seem like everything was going as good as he could have hoped, but for some reason, he felt as if there was something missing. That's when it hit him. He didn't really know anyone outside of work. Just like the cartoon character Крокодил Гена (Krokidil Gena) he needed friends.

Just looking for a friend

Just looking for a friend

Therefore, once the first year was finished and his flat lease was up, Billy decided to take action. No longer would he live alone on the outskirts of the city. He wanted to be around other people, and therefore determined that a hostel would be the best plan of action. He wouldn't have to commit for the long term or deal with landlords, nor would he spend evening after evening alone with his thoughts and coffee. There was just one dilemma: which hostel to choose? It is here he did something fairly unusual for him. He looked to the internet for advice, and after a brief search, he stumbled across a name that caught his eye: Vagabond Hostel. Being a word similar to hobo, Vagabond instantly caught his attention, and compelled him to make his first booking. The duration was to be one week.

Not long after, Billy found himself travelling to the hostel's location on Tverskaya. After entering the building, he ascended to the sixth floor, where he saw the door labelled with the hostel's name. Slowly, he turned the nob and entered. It was at that moment he realized something. This place... was... amazing! He instantly felt such a connection to the the odd, off-beat personality that resonated from both the the hostel and the people, who all seemed to be wonderful.

The deal was finally sealed when Billy arose from his slumber the following morning to find an elaborate and delicious breakfast on the common table, waiting patiently to be devoured by hungry guests (such as himself). He felt at home. He felt accepted. And most of all, he knew he would form the friendships he was looking for.

It is now ten months later. Not only was this a good decidion, but it was one of the best decisions he had made in his 26-year lifespan.  And today, he will be checking back into Vagabond for one last stay before departing from Moscow. So, as a goodbye for now (for he shall return!!!), please enjoy the photo memories.

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Friends have been made

Friends have been made

Saying Goodbye: Here's to the Wonderful Wanderers

"No one should be worse off for having met you."

-Joseph Melita (my Grandpa)

I don't think I would be alone in saying that one of the main reasons why I started traveling and staying in hostels/guest houses was to meet interesting people from all around the world. Think about it, a chance to converse, get to know, and share an experience with someone grew up in a different culture, under different circumstances, and probably has a another kind of perspective on the world in general. Just the thought gets me excited every time I'm about to start a new journey. I imagine the friendships I could make, the things I could learn, and the parts of me I can share. It all seems wonderful (which in many ways it is), but there's another side to it. And it's a side I've had to deal with all to often, which, I admit, I wasn't quite prepared for when this all began: saying goodbye.

It is one of the core components of traveling, but it is so rarely mentioned whenever travel is discussed. Think of the last time you read a travel blog or spoke to someone who had just gotten back from a big trip. Their focus was probably on the interesting stuff they did, the places they visited, and the people they met. Right? They probably didn't spend much time describing how they had to say goodbye and leave it all because they wanted to focus on what was fun and exciting. Saying goodbye is sad, and it is something we often prefer not to think about, but its reality. And the point I'm trying to make here is that If you start traveling, you'll have to deal with it constantly.

I knew it would be difficult saying goodbye to my long term friends (after a particularly eventful going away party in New Jersey) and my family. I had known them all my life and I was about to spend years away from them all. I prepared for this. However, the thing that ended up taking me completely by surprise was how, when traveling, you can form such intense friendships and relationships with people is such a short period of time. And saying goodbye here was tremendously difficult. There were, for example, some situations where I would meet someone, spend twelve hours a day with them for five days straight, do a mini trip together, then depart our separate ways all within a week. When I left, I felt as if I was saying goodbye to someone I had known all my life, I was left dumbfounded on what to do.

I would like to say that I have mastered the technique of parting ways, but no matter how many times I have to go through it, it never feels right. I always wish I did something more or said. I wish I let all the people I interacted with just how amazing I thought they all were. Part of me even wishes I said "To hell with employment. I'll stay here in Ireland and enjoy a great life with friends," or, "Can I have a job at your hostel so I can stay in Georgia forever?" (Update. Something like this may actually happen) So many times I wish I didn't have to say goodbye and wished things could remain as such, but reality keeps rolling on.

It can be quite exhausting, putting your full self forward constantly and concentrating on getting to know someone new again and again only to have them (or me) go away within a few days. Occasionally I do get to the point where I just need a break from it all, and (as strange and anti-social as it sounds), I have pretended to be a Russian who does not know English on multiple occasions in order to have a day's rest without getting roped into conversation.

That said, I want to make it absolutely clear that even though saying goodbye and parting ways can be difficult (sometimes very), it was all worth it. Every conversation, every interaction, every drink along the Moskva River. I look back and am so glad it all happened. And I think of the alternative. If I stayed in New York working a desk job, I never would have met any of the people I'm referring to in this article. Saying goodbye is only difficult when you form a close connection with someone or somewhere, and if I didn't travel, I wouldn't have had the difficult goodbyes only because I wouldn't have met all the people I now consider great friends.

In some ways, knowing that the time with a new close friend will soon be coming to an end actually helps me enjoy the friendship even more. Since my time is limited (and often very limited) I try to do everything I can to savor and enjoy it as much as I can. I'm pulled out of that false sense of security we so often have in treating something like it will last forever because here it is absolutely clear that it will not. That is why I can appreciate it so much. I have no time to take anything for granted, and therefore have had some of the most memorable moments of my life in these short but intense and amazing friendships.

But I do always leave wishing I had one more day or did something more or even said something extra. Therefore, I'm left with only one thing to do now... Shout outs to all the people I'm referring to in the posting above!

Hannah, Maud, and Blake (even though Blake is a long termer), you guys were the best part of the big East-to-West Eurotrip and my foggy memories from JW Sweetmans (including the second time!) are incredible! Quincy, I still get that happy feeling every time I pass by Patriarch's Ponds and can't wait for the next adventure ahead. Lea, that was the most interesting, thought-provoking week-long conversation I've ever had and I've never had so much fun in a cafe than I did playing the guess-the-film/picture game.  My Saturday classes from EF, I never thought I'd enjoy a workday on the weekend, but your humor, creativity, and overally fun personalities made it 110% worth it! Pete, Henri, Mirjam, Elis, George the Cat and the Georgia crew, exploring Tbilisi with you (including the night out that is now in the 'Stories' section) absolutely helped make Georgia my favorite travel destination of all time! Anya, between Baikal and Arkhyz, you've been the core part of my greatest nature adventures. Anne, Matthias, Hannes, Lea, Julie, Anna, and the Germany crew, you gave me a better welcome than I ever could have imagined in Tubingen (and made amazing food). Sbresni family, thank you for welcoming me to London with such hospitality. Everybody at the 8 March punk concert, you're awesome. The whole crew for the Vagabond/Amy birthday party, that was the best Monday ever. And, of course, Nikita, Robert, Roma, Roma, Alina, Oleg and everyone at Vagabond, you guys helped make Moscow my second home. And the rest of you wonderful wanderers who's names escape me at the moment since it's about 1:00am and I'm a couple drinks deep, keep on keepin' on! Hope to see you all again and wish you the best of adventures up ahead!

And now the update!

Eugene and everyone else from Tuesday-Friday morning, you all did the impossible and made me enjoy coming into work. Stefan and Gautier, it was a blast hiking and marshrutka riding across Central Asia! Tash, thank you for finding my camera and showing me around Karakol! Jet, I cannot thank you enough for finding that amazing coffee place and being awesome in general! Next time we'll make it to Oni and hike! Cherry, next time the weather won't get the best of us. Julie, you will forever remain the champion of hitchhiking. Lena, keep bringing the joy into life, it makes everything so much better!  Nutsa, Zinyat, and David, you made my Tbilisi experience incredible and the cherry liquor was much appreciated and enjoyed! And finally to Peter, Kryzstof, Karsten, Cate, Lidia, and all of my hostel family at Why Not, you've all helped create the most amazing place on Earth and I cannot wait to rejoin at the new location (approximately 1-2 month from the time of this writing)!

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And the friendly pigeon too

And the friendly pigeon too

Who could forget the goat? Not I, that's for sure!

Who could forget the goat? Not I, that's for sure!

Living in Moscow: The Best and the Worst

Back in August of 2015, I first moved to Moscow to begin working as an English teacher. I didn't quite know what to expect or how long I would stay, but I decided to throw myself into as many experiences as possible and make the most of my time here. Now, two years later, I haven't left, and am ready to make a few conclusions about my overall time living in the city. I don't usually like to make lists, but I thought this time it would be fun. So, without further ado, here are the top five best and worst things about living in Moscow.

The Best

5. Marshrutkas (tie)

Some people like them, and others despise them, but I personally think they're so cool. As a little leftover from the Soviet era, Moscow is crawling with these vehicles called Marshrutkas (sort of like a cross between a van and a minibus) that shuttle you around places that aren't accessible by metro. They cost less than buses, just 35 rubles (about 55 cents), and are so much faster and more exciting. Because of their size, they easily whip through traffic, getting you from place to place nearly twice the speed of buses, and since this is how the drivers make money, they won't hesitate to pack it to the brim and floor the pedal, thus giving you that adrenaline rush needed to kickstart your day.

In some cities, like Irkutsk for example, they're the main form of public transportation, but in Moscow, they're not quite so easy to find. They don't appear in many areas close to the center, so if you come and visit as a tourist, you may not get the opportunity to encounter one, but if you stay on the outskirts as I did last year, you'll probably end up taking one daily, which I, being a rather odd individual, always found exciting. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the fact that they come to a screeching halt on the side of the road to pick you up and instantly speed of once you hand the change necessary for a ride. Maybe because it feels like communal ride sharing, or maybe because it is an experience so different from those I've ever had growing up in the West. Bottom line, a Russian visit isn't complete unless you ride one.

 

5. Lack of Obnoxious Tourists (tie)

Now, I'm not claiming that Moscow doesn't get tourists. It is the capital of the world's largest country and has 13 million inhabitants, so of course it does. But for some reason, you don't tend to get the screaming families, over-privleged 18 year-olds on gap year, belligerent British bachelor parties, or Americans shouting, "Do you speak English?!" Unlike nearly every other prominent European city, Moscow has somehow avoided these horrors that have afflicted places like Amsterdam, Paris, and Prague. Because of that, it maintains a pretty strong feel of authenticity. Even in the center, you don't feel like Moscow is being marketed out for the tourism industry, and it still feels genuinely Moscow pretty much everywhere you go.

4. Parks

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I have been to hundreds of parks in cities of many different countries, and I can confidently say that none of them (including those of other Russian cities), come anywhere near Moscow. Despite containing 13 million residents, roughly 30% of the city remains as green space, meaning there are so many parks that all happen to be incredible in their own way. Take my favorite, Kolomenskoye, for example. There are hills and valleys as lush and green as the open country. Trees grow everywhere you look, and you can walk down to the shore to sit and relax along the river. The park has no city feel, and it is so big and open that it may seem like you're going on an adventure as you explore all the different sections. For example, if you know where to look, you'll even come across a giant orchard with apples fresh for the picking (season depending), and a ornate wooden palace that once belonged to the royal family.

3. Presentation/Look of the City

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You may have mental images of a gray, Soviet-era industrial city  with square, block buildings stretching as far as the eye can see. Moscow isn't like that. In fact, I'm willing to claim that it's one of the most gorgeous and unique cities I've ever been to. It really feels like quite an adventure going from block to block, especially in the center where. no two areas look alike whatsoever. The shapes, sizes and colors differ drastically, but everything seems to stand out, and it's all so much more vibrant than I could have ever imagined Russia being (after being raised around Western media). And everything is intermixed. Statues, parks, monuments, businesses, churches, historical sites, all clumped and mixed together while trees and green space sprout up intermittently.

On top of that, Moscow is always changing. Depending on the time of year, or if any exhibition is going on, the city is always decorated in some unique way. Last September, there were giant archways at the entrance-ways to all the pedestrian streets, while in December and January, the whole city was lit up in holiday lights. Even now, in the middle of June, there are so exhibitions about Russian history set up throughout the center, and in places like Pushkin Square, there are small shops set up where you can buy little souvenirs and sculptures made by different groups of people from throughout the country. Its just so dynamic, always changing, yet always so interesting.

2. Underground Music Scene

Moscow (and Russia in general) is not know for having a great music scene. When I first arrived, I struggled to find good venues that had something other than electronic music or generic pop. It was disappointing, but once I started getting the inside word and stumbled into the more discrete, less flashy places, my perception on Moscow music did a complete 180. I started hearing about punk bands at Китайский Летчик (Kitaisky Letchik), ska bands at Сады Вавилона (Gardens of Babylon), and recently just saw a Balkan-style brass band at the Serbian bar. And although the styles and performances were different, they all shared this energy and apparent passion for the music they were making and performance they were giving. Everything was so creative and seemingly spontaneous, as if these bands were getting a read from the crowd and playing accordingly. Maybe it's because the main stream music scene is that bad, the counterculture backlash so genuine and amazing. Whatever the reason, Moscow's underground music absolutely deserves it's place on the list. 

1. The People*

This was pretty much a no-brainer for me. The best part of living in Moscow has been the people I've met along the way. I don't mean to sound cheesy, but it is true. I've made some of the best friends of my life while living here, and I can conclude that Russians (as a generalization) take friendship very seriously in the best way possible. The concept of an acquaintance that has gripped the Western business world has not really taken root here. If a Russian is your friend, you'll be welcomed and treated just like you're a member of the family. And, for me, this has made my whole experience in Moscow so much richer and fuller than I could have ever imagined. I don't feel as if I am an outsider as a result, and truly feel as if I have become a part of the society.

I guess the best way I can describe friendship in Russia is by this example. One time, I asked a friend why people never smile on the streets, and my friend replied, "Why should I? If I just walked around smiling at everyone, it would be fake and meaningless. I want my smiles to actually mean something."

*Special shout-out to Vagabond and Comrade Hostel.

The Worst

5. Moscow's Coffee

LITERALLY ALL INSTANT COFFEE! THE HORROR!

LITERALLY ALL INSTANT COFFEE! THE HORROR!

I am a coffee addict. And I mean that literally, not figuratively. I get headaches and the chills if I don't get my fix for the day (yes I know it's a problem, but we've all got our little vices). Because of this, a good cup of coffee is one of the greatest pleasures in the world for me. In Russia, this became a problem, because about 90-95% of all coffee here sucks. It is almost exclusively instant coffee (shutters in disgust), and low grade instant coffee at that. Sadly, I admit that I do still drink it (as said, I have an addiction), but I garner no pleasure from it.

4. Registration

This is still a relic left over from the Soviet era, but one thing that truly aggravates me about living in Moscow is registration. By law, you have to register at every place you stay within three days of arrival, which may not seem as such a problem if you're just visiting for a week. Likewise, it wasn't so bad last year when I just lived at the same flat for the whole year, but this year, however, as I moves from place to place and hostel to hostel, it has become unbelievably frustrating. I need to take my previous registration to every new place I check into, and if I don't have it, there is usually a fee (it is just a small one, but still!)

Overall, I guess the main reason why this bothers me is the fact that it feels like Big Brother is keeping tabs on me wherever I go. It makes me feel a bit uneasy, but the one thing I can still take a bit of solace from is that it does not seem like anyone actually pays attention to this. After nearly two years, I still have yet to have a police officer stop me and ask to see my papers. Maybe it has just gotten too big and disorganized with all the data and paperwork for anyone to fully understand it. Anyway though, I still don't like it  and therefore, it makes the list.

3. Security Guards/Personnel

Artistic depiction (plagiarized from a previous post)

Artistic depiction (plagiarized from a previous post)

Remember how I described above how pleasantly surprised I was about how helpful regular people in Moscow were? Well... I was just about as unpleasantly surprised by how unhelpful security guards and similar personnel turned out to be. Much more often than not, when you ask them questions, they'll either flat-out refuse to help or just send you to someone else. Case in point, I had a friend from Argentina (who didn't know Russian) who needed to take a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. He was a bit confused in the station and wasn't sure where to go so he asked several people working there, including security, what he needed to do (showing the ticket and everything). None of these people, who's job it was to help, did anything. But thankfully, a few regular Russian people stepped in, started shouting at the security guards and threatened to take down their badge numbers unless they did their job. Eventually the regular people ended up walking my friend to the correct location. I'd like to say that this was just a freak occurrence, but unfortunately it is not. At least the regular people are incredibly helpful thought (something equally common).

2. Metro During Rush Hour

The Moscow metro is beautiful and usually enjoyable to ride... unless you take it during rush hour on a workday. Then it is quite literally a nightmare. Just like New York, Moscow is a huge city where millions of people from the outskirts and suburbs commute to and from the city center for work. Only Moscow's population is nearly double that of New York, and since Moscow's metro is many stories below ground, you need to take a long narrow escalator up and down. Normally, this is no problem, but during this time it becomes so stuck, like a ketchup bottle left in the freezer for a few days. And since Moscow's work schedules are a bit sporadic, rush hour lasts a long time: about 7:30-10 in the morning and 4:00-8:00 in the evening. When this happens, its like a dam has broken and swarms of people flood the streets. If you can, avoid this at all costs.

1. The Weather Winter

It feels so cliche to choose this as number one, but after this past year, it has to take my top spot. This is the one stereotype that actually holds true. The Russian winter is brutal, and lasts for what seems like forever. It started snowing in the beginning of October this year and continued until the middle of May. That's eight months of snow. Don't get me wrong, I like snow... for a month or two. But by eight, I'm ready to start pulling my hair out. It's so long that it hinders your ability to enjoy the summer because you know another long winter is just on the horizon.

Also, several days this year plunged below -30. I know that there are Russian cities that get even colder, but -30 just hurts, especially when there is wind and no sun. Thankfully the wind isn't so bad in Moscow, but the lack of sun in the winter is pretty depressing. Like the nation's stereotypical animal, the bear, the sun decides sometime in late November to go into hibernation and doesn't reveal its face again until late January. To help pass the time, we all play a game called 'Let's see who can become Vitamin-D deficient First.' My best finish so far is third place.

Conclusion

With all the pluses and minuses, was it worth it? YES!

For more, please see the page:

Reflection After 8 Months in Hostels

At the start of my second year in Moscow, I was at a bit of a crossroads. I still wanted to stay and experience more of the city, but I was tired of my far on the outskirts flat, couldn't stand my landlord, and had not really developed a strong social life. So I made a decision. I left my flat and began looking into hostels. I was tired of living alone and shuttered at the thought of signing a lease or dealing with a landlord, as I had never had a good experience with either, and I did not want to be roped into paying for one place for an entire year. I wanted to be free and make friends. I wanted my world to be open and active, not closed and restricted. Therefore, one day in late August(2016), I made a booking for a hostel near Тверская Улица (Tverskaya St.) called Vagabond. That was eight months ago. It is now late April of 2017. I have been living in Russian hostels ever since. This is what I have to say.

As expected, it was everything the flat wasn't. I had instantly leapt from a rather isolated environment, spending a majority of my time alone, to an unending and ever-present social atmosphere. At first, it was exactly what I needed. I was tired of the monotony of only my interior monologue keeping me company, and this new surrounding gave me the opportunity to interact with anyone whenever I wanted. So, of course, I indulged. Any time someone new wanted to check out part of the city or go out for a drink, I jumped at the chance. Even though I had done plenty of exploring and drinking on my own last year (often simultaneously), it was much more fun to share the experience with someone else.

To make a long story short, my objective, in so much as having a more social and exciting year, was achieved and then some.  This was, without a doubt, the most eventful window of time in my entire life, eclipsing even my college years. I met more people that I ever thought I would in an entire lifetime and always had something to do every day. But that aside, I would be lying if I were to say that I enjoyed every aspect of this experience. When I started, as said, I was 100% ready to socialize with everybody. But one thing I didn't factor into the equation was that I was working a full time job, while nearly everyone else coming through the hostel was not. It was not too long until I started to feel regularly exhausted, now having doubled my already high caffeine intake in an attempt to squeeze the most out of every moment.

As time wore on, I began to realize that I desired just having a rest and a break more than anything else in the world, but in being often surrounded by people and sharing a 12-bed common room, my want was often impossible. Also, the 'get to know you' questions like, "What's your name? Where are you from? What are you here for? What about that election?" began to chip away at my last nerve like Chinese water torture. I can't really blame anyone for asking, though, seeing as I did the same when I first arrived, but after being asked the same thing several times every day for months, it was exhausting. The way I can describe the feeling is this: imagine college/university orientation reoccurring every few days on an endless repeat with new people every time.

But with all of this considered, if I was faced with the decision of living the hostel year again as it was or moving back into a flat like the previous year, I would choose the hostels every time. I may have spent a little extra time focusing on the negative aspects of it all because I am currently in the middle of the two most exhausting work weeks of the year and had to deal with a new loud and large group in the hostel that is collectively about as pleasant as the Bubonic Plague, so now isn't the happiest of times. But if I had to compare this year with last year, this year has been exponentially more fun and has been full of genuinely better experiences.

And now looking back, I spent so much of last year my myself just trying to kill time. This year, despite all the ups and downs, there was quite literally never a dull moment. I did so much more than I could ever have imagined. For example, I finally got around to seeing Lenin, I drank at night outside by the river and engaged in deep discussions, and I met so many fascinating people from all over the world. And I truly was free. I was not tied to a single flat, I did not have to deal with any landlord, and, since I paid by the day, I could leave any time I wanted. It was liberating to have that option even if I didn't use it.

Not to mention, I've developed some useful skills. Prior to this year, I had been a pretty light sleeper and slight noises could wake me up any time during the night. Now, after being surrounded by eleven, often snoring, people, I can sleep through anything. And I have no problem now being assertive whenever I have a problem or something is going wrong. Before, I would likely have remained silent, but now I've realized that doing so doesn't solve anything and usually just increases tension.

So, to sum it all up, I am happy with my choice overall to spend the year in hostels. However, I do think I need to find a quiet and antisocial hostel for a few days just to rest up and recouperate, so I can once again be my full self and enjoy the social atmosphere and influx of new people.