Sunday, June 4, 2017

The More Things Change...

Every time I return to Russia, I wonder if it will live up to my memories. Many of the friends who shaped the previous experience have cycled out, and I worry that Moscow will have lost its magic. After my post-Moskva toska wore off last fall and two good friends left, I wasn’t as hell-bent on returning for another summer in Russia. I applied for a couple of grants, but it was more out of habit than anything else—other people might summer in warmer climes, but I summer in Russia.

Despite my indifference, the powers that be wanted me in Mother Russia. Even though I didn’t get the language grant that funded last summer’s adventures, my alma mater reached out with an offer to teach a creative writing course in Kazakhstan. Not only would those two weeks of work fund writing in Moscow for the rest of the summer, but my employer would cover my flights to Moscow, and to San Francisco for a wedding I was in as well. And so, for the fourth summer in a row, I was Russia bound.

As soon as I landed at Domodedovo on Wednesday afternoon, muscle memory kicked in. I shouldered through the crowd of cab drivers outside of Arrivals, located the bank of ATMs across from the Cinnabon, withdrew a few thousand rubles, and hit up the MTC kiosk to get a SIM card for my Russian burner phone. Within an hour of landing, my luggage and I were in the back of an Uber, heading toward the same apartment that housed me last summer.

Moscow felt comfortingly familiar at first. A light rain fell on the birch forest outside, billboards along the highway advertised Elena Furs, and the radio was tuned to a station playing nothing but American 80s hits. But then I saw something new—a billboard for Lay’s potato chips. That in itself wasn’t alarming, but the advertising strategy was. The billboard featured a row of grinning Russians, with the slogan “Каждый день вкуснее с улыбкой!” Every day is tastier with a smile? No, not in Russia, the land where smiles go to die! I brushed it off as an advertising campaign gone awry, and reminded myself that I was still surrounded by shoddily constructed Soviet apartment buildings, Moscow traffic jams, and children walking down the sidewalk in snowsuits, even on the last day of May. All was as it should be.

After my Uber dropped me off, I dumped my bags, showered, and set off for a visit with my friend Nastya. Her new apartment is five stops away by metro, so I bought a ticket and took the familiar underground ride. I was fighting some pretty aggressive jet lag, so I put in my earbuds and blasted Cuban reggaeton. It kept me from falling asleep on the metro like a drunk, but meant that I didn’t hear any of the announcements until I was approaching my stop.

“Next stop, Tretyakovskaya.”

Normally the announcement is delivered in Russian, and Russian only, but this time it was echoed in English. And not just any English—refined British English that didn’t come close to approximating a Russian’s harsh tones. What kind of nonsense was this?! Russia was supposed to remain the tourist-unfriendly place I know and love for time eternal!

Despite my annoyance with smiles and with English, those were exactly the things that awaited me at Nastya’s. We caught up over red wine, nibbled on black bread and squash caviar, and made plans for the summer ahead. And when she asked me how it felt to be back, no amount of globalization could change my answer.

“It feels wonderful,” I said. “It’s like I never left.”

A Studio 54-themed house party with Nastya, Molly, and Ksenia
(because Brits abroad are even more obnoxious than Americans abroad) 

With old friends at a new restaurant

Moonrise Kremlin

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Like a Travel Virgin, Touched for the (Thirty) First Time

Over the years and with each new stamp in my passport, travel lost some of its initial thrill. The terror, excitement, and culture shock that accompanied my first trip abroad couldn’t be replicated—and certainly not over and over again.1 But then I went to Cuba, my 31st country, and returned with the same feeling I’d had as a 16-year-old coming back from Ecuador.

Between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I went to Ecuador for a summer abroad program. It was a summer of firsts: the first time traveling without family, the first time I’d had so much independence, and the first time I had to function in a foreign language. In short, it was the first time I’d had so much fun. After five wonderful weeks, my mom and sisters met me at SeaTac airport to welcome me home. I stood completely rigid while they embraced me, and had nothing to say except, “I want to go back to Ecuador.”

Half a lifetime later, I feel like that petulant 16-year-old once again. Even though it’s been two months (and there’s been a trip to Mexico in the interim), I just want to be back in the Caribbean, drinking rum and dancing to reggaeton. So what is it about Cuba that got inside of me and ruined real life for the foreseeable future? Like Russia, Cuba is one of those rare countries that makes me feel like a travel virgin all over again.

As everyone who has been there will tell you, Cuba is unlike anywhere else on earth. Though there is plenty to frustrate travelers and residents alike (empty shelves, long lines, and Soviet-style efficiency, to name a few), Cuba’s energy and excitement make up for much of that. There’s island magic in the air—a joie de vivre that permeates daily life despite poverty and regardless of politics. Life is lived with zeal, and is accompanied by a constant soundtrack of son and salsa.

A view of the Vedado neighborhood of Havana

Before you assume that I’m describing an experience exclusive to privileged foreigners, let me quote two Cubans (from two sides of the country) who voiced identical refrains:

“I live better abroad, but I only feel truly alive on the island.”

I first heard this in Santiago, from a Santiaguero who left Cuba for Canada. I heard it again a week later in Havana, this time from a Cuban living in Switzerland. It also sounded strangely similar to something a friend once said when we were talking about Moscow. “Don’t you just feel more alive there? Sure, you also feel like you might die at any moment, but there’s just an energy to it.” Fittingly, this was the person I was traveling with in Cuba.

I had the perfect travel companion for visiting a nation under communist rule—a Spanish-speaking Russian whose appetite for adventure is even greater than my own. Despite canceled flights in Florida, a lost phone in Havana, blackouts in Santiago, and a scrapped plan to hitchhike across the island, serendipity was always on our side. When two of my college friends failed to meet us at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, I ran into a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in fifteen years instead. When we got suckered into the worst casa particular in Santiago, our search for better lodging led us to a rooftop terrace and a night of rum-drinking with the proprietor’s childhood friend. When a storm hit Havana, we ended up with the one driver who would take his ’52 Dodge down an abandoned and rain-battered Malecón. Similar circumstances led to a marriage proposal at a bus station, a visit to Fidel’s grave, and a personal violin concert in a moonlit alley.

And I eventually found those college friends

Not surprisingly, Cuba brought out my same fearless (and somewhat foolhardy) alter ego, who first appeared in Ecuador and resurfaces every time I go to Russia. It’s a good thing we’ve only got eight more weeks to go before my blog returns to its regular programming. That’s right—I’m going back to Russia in June, and this summer has the added bonus of a two-week stint in the Central Highlands of Kazakhstan. It seems I’ll do anything to recreate the feeling of my very first time.

1 My first trip overseas, at age 16, was to my mother’s home country of the Philippines, and coincided with the Second EDSA Revolution. While I met extended relatives and attended a cousin’s wedding, the Filipinos took to the streets to overthrow their president.