What Now, Guy?

It’s now almost four months since I’ve returned from a long period abroad.  It’s been great to be back.  I thought readjusting to life in America would be difficult but it hasn’t been so bad.

I was unemployed for about three weeks and then got a job doing sales at a language school, which only lasted one week.  This job did not pay me anything nor did it really seem like there was potential in it.  It was sort of a depressing week – I was really pumped to start a new job doing sales.  I thought it would be a good opportunity but there were no leads and ended up being really discouraged.  But I quit, which was empowering, and two days later found another job.

The other job I got was as an ESL teacher at a language school in Midtown – I mostly teach Western European young adults.  It’s different from my previous teaching Korean elementary school students – a lot more conversation and a lot less in-class discipline.  It was difficult at first but now I have the hang of it.  It’s a decent job, but the hours come and go with the enrollment levels, so the job lacks a sense of permanence, which maybe is a good thing.

I was hoping that I’d fall in to something interesting and be able to start a serious career doing something but I’m still uncertain about which course to take and find myself in a holding pattern.  It’s not so terrible, but I’d like to get moving on something.  I don’t really know how one goes about figuring this thing out – I’d like to try out some more jobs.  What jobs? How will I get them?  I don’t know.  I don’t know.

 

 

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Reflecting in Trans-Siberia

Between Vladivostok to Moscow there are seven time zones, a handful of bustling cities, thousands of abandoned factories and what must be billions of birch trees.

As I’ve discussed in previous entries, the view out the window is nothing spectacular except for a few notable exceptions.  When I wasn’t trying to make conversation with my high school Russian skills or reading, I was trying to sleep and ended up with a lot of time to just think.

What did I think about?  Well, a lot of everything, but a surprising amount of my time was thinking about just sex and food.  Sex, food, sex, food, sex, food and then every once in a while something profound but then back to food, sex, food, sex.  Both sex and food thoughts can be divided in to two categories:

  1. The Past:  Past experience that were worthy of meditating about.
  2. The Future:  Experiences that I would like to have in the near future.  What foods will I eat when I get at my next destination?  Will I meet any nice pretty ladies?

Other things that I pondered for way too long on my trip include:

  1. How many birch trees could there possibly be in one country? How many time zones of birch trees can a human endure before he develops a lifelong hatred of that white tree.
  2. The Earth.  One can get on a ferry on the east coast of Korea and after travelling 400 miles, he would be in the biggest city in the Russian Far East.  He would be transported to an entirely different world.   Different food, different architecture, different mindset.  The most obvious indication of that city’s proximity to the great cultures of Asia is that the majority of the cars are Japanese with the steering wheels mounted on the right-side.  If he gets on a train and travel another 1000 miles and he’ll be days away from the closest city he’s likely to have ever heard of.  If he has a heart-attack and dies, who would know? who would care?  We might be more and more connected by technology but the world is still a big place.
  3. Russian people don’t read books.  At least the ones riding third class on the train and the ones on the Moscow Metro don’t.  The only printed materials I saw being read were these poorly printed joke magazines with very corny looking cartoons.  I expected a lot more books than the US and Korea because of Russia’s great literary heritage and the pride they have in their language.
  4. Aging.  When told the Russians how old I was, they did not believe me.  I am 29 years old but they all wanted to think I was 21 or 22.  I took some offence at this, but then I looked at some of the Russians and I’m shocked at how badly some of them aged.  I met a man named Sergei who was travelling from Vladivostok to London to get married.  He told me he was 38 years old; just ten years older than me, but he looked older than my father.  A hard life coupled with alcoholism and smoking accelerates the aging process. But I did end up pondering how maybe I have sort of aged younger over the past year.  In a good way.
  5. Another thing that is hard to not consider is the Soviet Union’s legacy.  Monuments of the period’s successes and failures are everywhere.  Other places through which the train passes looked like they were totally untouched by the Soviet era – wooden villages with dirt roads, outhouses and cows wandering the streets must look exactly as they did 100 years ago.   What is the legacy of Soviet Union?  Were those 70 years a total failure?  What lessons can be taken from the collapse of the Soviet Union?  What can Americans learn?

Lotus-eaters

Those who ate the honey-sweet lotus fruit no longer wished to bring back word to us, or sail for home.
They wanted to stay with the Lotus-eaters, eating the lotus, forgetting all thoughts of return.
I dragged those men back to the shore myself by force, while they wept, and bound them tight in the hollow ships, pushing them under the benches.
Then I ordered my men to embark quickly on the fast craft, fearing that others would eat the lotus and forget their homes.
-Odyssey book IX

 

So, a little exhausted from two night buses in three nights, I made my way down to Olympos to meet two Americans I had met in Cappadocia.  My plan was to stay one or two nights and then go on to more places along the coast.  But transferring buses on the side of a highway on the ridge of a mountain overlooking the sea, I was already a little enchanted by the place.

Olympos is an enclave of backpacker tree-houses.  All of the guesthouses are to the left of a river just behind an abandoned Lycian city which in turn is on a turquoise blue bay on the Mediterranean.  The name of my guesthouse is Bayram’s – their motto is “Come for a day, stay for a week”.  This is definitely describes the reality of this place.

The first day was spent at the beach swimming in the perfect water around anchored schooners and in to grottos surrounded by Roman ruins.  The night was capped off by a trip to an eternal flame that has been burning for thousands of years on the side of the mountain.

The second day was much like the first, but with more and cooler people entering the gravitational pull of a social group that had amazing chemistry.  There were maybe ten of us who were doing everything together and clicking on so many levels.  We all came for short periods but decided to stay longer and longer.

From a Turkish-German who we made friends with, we learned the Turkish word keif, meaning to relax and enjoy little things like a cup of tea or sitting with a friend.  It’s a lifestyle of lounging and playing backgammon and playing cards.  It’s a lifestyle of simple pleasures.  We took in this lifestyle at Olympos.

A day came when I decided I just had to leave – I couldn’t spend my whole time in Turkey in just this one place, no matter how beautiful and enchanting.  My friend Michael (another New York who was doing an overland journey from Korea) had packed his things each of the nights he had stayed there but decided last minute to stay.  We had to guilt each other in to leaving – for we both had places to be in the near future and so much to see in between.

While we were waiting for the bus on that last day, I had serious doubts whether I had the strength to leave Olympos.  There was a sign on the bar “Help Wanted” – they wanted English speaking people to work the bar.

I could do that.  Why don’t I do that?  What would be wrong with working here? Was I having anxiety about returning home that this place allowed me to escape?  Had I eaten the lotus flower and forgotten all thoughts of return?

Michael and I successful convinced each other to get on the bus up to the highway and we headed to Antalya.  Our plan was to go there, take in a hammam at a 700 year old bath-house and then catch a night bus to Istanbul.

But again there was temptation.

We met a beautiful Chinese nurse who needed help finding her hostel.  We successfully navigated the beautiful ancient streets of that ancient city and got her to her hostel.  We walked together to a cliff overlooking one of the most marvellous views I’ve seen.  The city rested on high cliffs over looking beautiful blue sea and in the distance, massive mountains.  Waterfalls streamed down from the cliffs and unreal puffy white clouds floated across a  brilliant sky, occasionally blocking the sun to give the place a celestial glow.

The nurse, who had been travelling by herself for some time, was so happy to have met such friendly people as my friend and me that she asked us to stay one night in Antalia at the hostel.  We looked at the view and we hesitated.  She began pleading with us to stay.  This unreal view.  This gorgeous girl.  And another enchanting city.  Why don’t we stay? Just one night?  What are we doing?  Where are we going?  Have we lost all thought of home?  Have we?

We finally diverted our eyes from the view and from the girl and remembered we have to travel.  We have to go to the places over the horizon.  We have to go home – in our different routes.  One night here would surely turn in to another.  Why wouldn’t it?  We said good-bye to her and went to the hammam  at the 700 year old bath-house and we caught a night bus to Istanbul.

I am sad to be away from that coast but happy that I escaped it.    I don’t know how I did it.

Istanbul (day 2) – Cappadocia

Wed 11-May: My first full day in Istanbul.  I teamed up with an Argentino named Mariano and we hit up some of the more major sites – the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the spice market and the Archaeological Museum – the highlight of which was the actual chain the Byzantines pulled across the Golden Horn to prevent the Ottomans from encircling the city.  I was still feeling ambitious as the day wore on so we split ways and I took up the recommendation of a friend I had made in Sofia to visit a neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosporus.  The ferry across cost $1 and the bus ride up the straights cost $1 and the Turkish tea that I sipped as I watched ships passed under the shade of a 300 year old tree cost $1.

Thurs 12-May: After a lazy morning in the hostel, I headed back out in to the fray of sightseeing.  I went to the Galata Tour from which a colony of Italians helplessly watched the Turks pillage Constantinople.  Then I headed up to the old Roman aqueduct where I had a run-in with a shoe-shiner (I did him a favor of picking up a brush he dropped – he wanted to shine my shoes as a thank-you but ended up wanting me to pay $31 – NO WAY DUDE).  I hit up some pretty fabulous mosques and managed to find some decent places to eat.  Went back to the hostel and drank with some people there.

Fri 13-May:  One last loop around Istanbul before leaving for Cappadocia.  I hit up the old city walls (I am very fascinated with the fall of Constantinople) which are filled with gypsies who were staring me down.  I don’t know if they were eyeing me up or just curious why I was there.  The walls were rugged and beautiful – filled with trees growing through crevasses and the smoke from gypsy fires, clothes drying.  After a quick bite to eat, I walked along the Sea of Marmara towards my hostel and then on the bus bound for Cappadocia.

Sat 14-May: Cappadocia is in Central Turkey, not too far south of Ankara.  The landscape is vastly different than anything I have seen on my entire trip.  More like the American Southwest than the rest of Turkey.  It definitely felt like I was in the Middle East here – especially compared to cosmopolitan Istanbul which has a European swagger.  At 9am I arrived at my hostel after a long bus ride and even though I was exhausted I was eager to jump right in on a 9 hour tour of the countryside.  It was definitely worth the $45 to be guided around the massive expanses of the region.   In the evening I went to a restaurant and had a chicken cooked in a clay pot and broken open at my table.  It was delicious.

Sun 15-May: After a solid rest, I met some people in my hostel for an all day hike around the town we were staying – Goreme.   The major features of the area are strange rock formations and houses built in to the sides of canyon walls.  We spent the better part of the day getting lost in the various canyons and ridges of the area.  It was a lovely Sunday.  In the end though, I had to get on another overnight bus – bound for Antalya on the southern coast of Turkey for some time at the beach and some good weather finally.

Kiev – Sofia – Istanbul (day 1)

Sorry to lump all of this in to one post but I’ve been pretty busy and most of my internet time has been consumed by writing e-mails and researching where i’m going next.

Real quickly a day-by-day account

Thur 5-May:  My last day in Kiev is spent doing some last minute walking around and some shopping for groceries at the aptly named MegaMart.  They had a good selection of instant noodles, including some of my favorite Korean brands, which unfortunately weren’t instant.  I got to the train station with plenty of time and boarded the train for Sofia.  I am paired with a nice Russian woman named Zoya.  She is very chatty and maternal.  I practice my Russian a lot.  There is also a very nice Iranian med student named Rachel who got off at L’viv.

Fri 6-May:  Another day on the train.  At 10:30 we arrive at the Ukraine/Romania border where we have to wait for two and a half hours while they change the gears on the train.  Zoya is very keen on explaining everything to me.  Sometimes I understand her – my Russian had improved significantly, but it was still a struggle.  After cruising through Romania and seeing the life of 19th century peasants, we arrived in Bucharest.  A Swede got in to my car and we started to drink.

Sat 7-May: First day in Sofia, Bulgaria.  We lost no time and got in a guided tour of Rila Monastery.  It was very beautiful to go through the caves and see the beautiful buildings situated behind the snow capped mountains.   We arrived back to Sofia in time for the hostel’s free spaghetti and beer dinner.  The Swede and I had stocked up on beer and we began drinking.  I passed out on a couch – I was very exhausted.

Sun 8-May:  The weather had again turned cold and gray.  I walked around an empty Sofia.  That city is how imagine many European cities looked at one point in the past.  No high rises, no highways really, piles of rubble, slight disrepair but a certain sense of style and history found in the Old World.  In the evening I had dinner with an American I met in the hostel and he, the Swede, two Germans and a Dutchman we met REALLY began drinking.  Out late till 4am.  Drank a ton and had a blast.  The Dutchman and the German had a bad time of it.

Mon 9-May:  Recovery.  Hungover and tired from a lot of moving around.  Took it easy around the hostel and started seriously planning my trip to Turkey.  Ended up booking a flight to Istanbul (same price and 7 hours faster than the plane) and beginning an itinerary through the country.  Chatted with some friends back home and ate some delicious Bulgarian food.

Tue 10-May:  One more quick walk around Sofia and then off to the airport.  My first plane ride on my trip.  I was a little sad to have come overland so far only to make this last small jump by plane, but it only made sense.  Th.ed in Istanbul’s second airport which is a bit away from the center.  I had to take a bus through the Asian side of the city and over the  Bosphorus.  It was a revelation.  I hadn’t imagined it would be so beautiful.  The straights were so narrow and the cliffs on either side were dotted with towns filled with nice houses.  All of the other sites were much as I imagined; Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were huge, the back streets are a spider’s web of history, aromas and people that it was impossible to escape from.  This is a city I had always dreamed of visiting and when I was there it felt so right and natural to be there.  Ah Istanbul – just how I remember it.

Chicken Kiev – the thinking man’s chicken nugget

I boarded a train at the Kievsky Voksal in the southwest corner of Moscow at 11:23pm on Sunday night.  The station was a bit deserted except for the usual massive number of heavily armed Russian police.  The train pulled out of the station and I immediately fell asleep.  I was woken by Russian border security at 4am.  One of my proudest moments of using the Russian language was my simple but important back-and-forth with these guys.  I went back to sleep.

I woke up at 7am and the sun was shining in Ukraine.  I looked out the window and saw green.  I felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz – all of a sudden there was color!   After going through Ukrainian immigration at the Kiev train station, and dropping my things off at my hostel, I started exploring Kiev.

Kiev is a beautiful city – simultaneously more European but less cosmopolitan feeling than Moscow.  There is the usual massive Soviet monuments littering the city, beautiful gold-domed churches, but Kiev’s  tree-lined boulevards made me think of Hausmann and not Stalin.

Ukrainian food was also a revelation compared to Russia.  It is basically the same far but cooked with more pride, more flare and more flavor.  It was also cheaper.  My first meal in Kiev consisted of a great dark Ukrainian beer, borscht, a medley of vegetables in a butter sauce, buttery bread, and “kotlet kuryana z sirom” literally chicken cutlet with cheese but known to us as chicken Kiev.  All of this cost me 34 hrivna or $4.25US.  I loved every bite of it.  I had meals at this restaurant many times and was always very happy.

Kiev is a great city but three days was enough.  I had been thinking about extending my time in Ukraine and taking a ferry from Odessa on the 11th, but again I felt itchy to get going.  I bought a ticket for another overnight train from Kiev to Sofia.   It was more train travel than I had hoped but the train trip was made a lot nicer with the company of a lovely Russian woman named Zoya who lives in Sofia, a beautiful Iranian girl going to medical school in Ukraine and a Swedish traveller who was heading to the same hostel as me.  The countryside was also a new site – gone were birch trees and industrial wastelands – now there were huge plains checkered with green grass and yellow flowers, horses pulling families in carts and shepherds tending to their flocks.

I had crossed in to the EU and it felt like I was in a new world.

Moscow to the End of the Line

The first sight of Moscow wasn’t spectacular.  It wasn’t terrible either.  After days and days of birch forests, abandoned factories, farms and small industrial cities, it was refreshing to see something different.  There was more people, more Communist imagery and more housing blocks.  Yaroslavsky station was a concrete heap but the metro station below was glorious.

In Moscow I visited the Kremlin, Red Square, the Cosmonauts Memorial, Arbat St., and Pushkin’s home.  I met lots of cool people and went partying with some friends I had met on the ferry from Korea and some Russians that they had met along the way.  I was intimidated by the idea of going to a Moscow nightclub but ended up having a great time and not spending an obscene amount of money – 1000 rubles (about $40) made a great night out.

The Russians in Moscow often speak English very well and are very friendly.   Lots of people were very eager to help out if I looked lost and were excited to talk to foreigners.  This was quite different from my experiences in Siberia, where one had to try a lot harder to talk to people.

It was nice being in a real Western city for the first time since I left New York last year.  Moscow lived up to or exceeded all of my expectations for it yet it still failed to really dazzle me the way some other great cities have.  Maybe a part of it is timing – I was there during a holiday and many people were out-of-town – and maybe it was partly a result of the over-militarization you see in Russian with the Militsia glaring at me.

I was happy to be getting on the train again and head to Kiev and finally a new country after two weeks of travelling.  Keep on keeping on.