A Russian New Years: The cooking stage of the night

As Tobias mentioned on Thursday’s post, I had to temporarily abandon my usual day for Saturday.  This was for a very important reason.  I moved.  Again. 😀 I am now living close to Portland, Oregon and am very excited for the chapter of my life.  And, it has inspired me to write a slightly different blog for this week based on two writing premises:

1) Writers should write from experience.

2) Writers should have experience in life.  In living.

Red Square at Night.

One of the oldest and, to my senses, best means of gaining experience and learning about life is travelling.  Although there are all types of experiences, such as family drama, illness, love, broken hearts, etc,  travelling is a time-honored tradition of many writers.  While travelling, you gain a sense of how other people live.  Different cultures.  Different size towns.  Different languages, schools, religions.  But, most importantly, you get inspiration for characters.  When you travel, you find stories – your own, other people’s, cats’ and dogs’.  Stories are everywhere, and travelling is the best way to uncover them.  Additionally, learning and exploring new geography is great for developing that new town/city.  Some cities specialize in parks, others in statues and public art.  Small towns usually have an authentic town square. By visiting a new location and seeing both tourist and native hot spots, you may just find the world’s most perfect burger located in some old greasy dive ten miles off the highway that inspires the central location of your next novel.  Add to that the a wrinkled old matriarch that runs the dive like she runs her family, and you are on a roll.

Now, if you’re like me, you don’t have the finances to travel around much.  In fact, you may have NO experience travelling.  So, this post is to give you some advice on how to travel and how to travel on a budget.

1. You don’t have to go abroad to travel.  You don’t even have to go to another state.  Think of all the attractions within a two-hour drive of your home.  Whether it’s the world’s largest cat litter box or an old battlefield ground, chances are there is something near you that you have yet to see.  Go see it.  And if you’ve already seen it.  Go again.  Why, you may ask, should I visit the world’s largest cat litter box?  The answer is simple.  Just think about the type of people who WILLINGLY see it for the fun of it.  Think about the kind of characters THEY can inspire.  So go there.  And start chatting up the tourists.  Get their stories.

I absolutely adore street performers. Especially those that attract attention like the one here in Washington, D.C.

2. Cheap, public lodging.  When you travel, be it overseas or within the country, don’t stay in a hotel room by yourself.  Find a friend, a hostel, or a native to hook up with.  By doing this, you get to see the town like a native.  You get to experience the culture from the inside.  When I was in Russia, one of my best experiences was truly having a Russian New Year’s, complete with fireworks, carrot eating, speech listening, and more.  I learned of traditions I would have never heard of had I been in my room or with other foreigners.

Plus, hostels are great places to meet new, interesting people.  About a year ago, Tobias and I stayed at a hostel in Santa Fe while attending a conference.  I met a guy from South Africa, a man from Canada, and an American intent on hitchhiking his way across the country.  We stayed up for hours talking.

Finally, for those of you who have never heard of it, there’s a wonderful website out there called couchsurfing. This site allows people to join together to meet up.  You can enter in where you are travelling and find people to meet for coffee or sight-seeing.   But, most importantly, it allows you to find people who have a spare couch or bed you can sleep on for FREE.  Now, a little disclaimer.  You must use common sense when using any online website that allows people to communicate with each other.  Couchsurfing does their best to weed out the wackos.  That said, no system is perfect.  My connections through their have all been rather nice.  And I have friends who have couchsurfed their way across Europe.  But, there are the creepers who will slip through any protective net.

3. Pack minimally.  When travelling the last thing you want to do is wait on lost luggage.  Or carry around heavy bags.  Or look like a lost tourist in a big city.  Lose the map.  Leave the guide books at home.   I am living proof that it is possible to pack for at least a month in 1 carry-on bag (and a purse/back pack).  And here’s how.

Most necessities that you have to have, such as shampoo, toothbrush/paste, deodorant, soap, etc can be bought locally.  This saves you room and allows you to pack in a carry-on bag.  Also, don’t take set clothing.  Take about three pairs of pants/skirts and three to four tops.  Mix and match and wash as often as needed.  Also, don’t make all your pants denim.  It takes longer to dry and picks up smells easily.  Cargo pants, khaki, etc. are usually good picks when spending days exploring.  A light jacket is also a good pick.  It doesn’t take up much room, but saves you from packing a lot of bulky winter long-sleeves.

Staying with a local friend on this trip to Fredericksburg, TX made my adventures so much more fun. 😀

4. With today’s technology the only real thing you should carry about a town is a smart phone or tablet, and your wallet, and a camera.  Make sure they are pick-pocket proof though.  By relying on your phone or tablet (with internet), you can leave off the weight of a book, and you won’t stand out as a tourist.  When I was exploring Moscow one day I took my NOOK.  Now, it didn’t have 3G connection, but it did have wifi capabilities, so I was able to take it into McDonald’s and set my course from there.  If you look like a tourist, you will get the tourist treatment, which isn’t always a good thing.  You will also be an easy mark for a pick pocket.  A back pack in a dark color is usually fairly safe if you are carrying equipment.  But leave the fanny pack and matchy-matchy clothing at home.

5. Don’t lose heart when you are lost.  Yes, it is very frustrating getting lost.  I have been there on way too many occasions.  Which is why I decided to stop getting angry every time I lost my way and start looking about me.  There are so many things to see and observe in this world, and some of the best and surprising sights comes when you are lost.  You will find your way back eventually, but in the mean time, enjoy the scenic route.  You never know what you may see or who you may meet.

6. If you can’t afford a major trip you have two options.  The most obvious one is to save, save, save.  Yes, it may take a while before you have saved enough to go on your grand European adventure, but doesn’t that mean it will means so much more to you?  Right now, if you can stay in most European hostels for about  US$25-$30 a night.  A round-trip ticket will cost you b/n $750-$1200 if you shop smart.  Many tourist sites have student rates, which also helps if you have a student ID card.  Also, you can save money by getting a Europass instead of renting a car.  Walking and taking metros instead of taxis.  Not only do you save money, but you get more local flavor.  Cook your own food.  Some hostels have kitchens for the travellers to use.  Or, eat from a street vendor (if it doesn’t look too much like cat meat).  It is entirely possible to take a trip to Europe for around $2000 and still get much from the experience.

The trip getting to this little-known Moscow art gallery was almost as much fun as exploring the treasures inside. Don’t underestimate the value of getting lost. 😀

The second option is taking a break from your current life and work overseas for a year or two.  ESL is just one of several booming jobs to get you over there.  This is how I ended up in Russia.  I knew I couldn’t afford to travel there on my own dime for a time, so I found a job that took me to my beloved.  And I had one of the best years in my life.  I met fantastic new friends.  Learned so much more about the customs, history, and language, and fell in love with a building.

There are many more tips to give, but these are just a few that I’ve picked up along the way.  If you have any, feel free to comment and add.

For more stories and information on my year in Russia, including a trip across railroad tracks and into a stranger’s van, you can visit my personal blog. 

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