“I’ll be starting in Moscow,” I explained to the girl from Maine in the seat beside mine, “and from there I’ll take the Trans-Siberian Railway east across Russia to Lake Baikal.” The girl from Maine in the seat beside mine was headed for Israel for a year abroad, though she hardly seemed prepared. She had made my acquaintance by boarding the plane with four large bags and arranging herself awkwardly amongst them in her seat, next to mine. Shortly before takeoff, the man across the aisle was kind enough to inform her of the existence of overhead bins and the space under the seat in front, and together we helped her stow her belongings.
“After Siberia I’d like to see Mongolia,” I continued, moving my finger south on the map of Asia in the in-flight magazine. “I’m thinking of getting a horse there and exploring the countryside for a month or two. Then I’ll head to China and maybe float along the Yangtze River before heading into Tibet and across the Himalayas to Nepal. If all goes well, I should end up in India in seven or eight months.” That was the loose outline of my plan. I’d spent enough time daydreaming of far away places here at MIT that between my sophomore and junior years I decided to take a year off school to travel some of the world. All that I had at this point, though, was an airplane ticket to Moscow and a Russian visa.
“Wow,” said the girl from Maine in the seat beside mine, “so you’re going to be going all over Europe!” I looked at the map, labeled Asia, then back at her, waiting for her to correct herself. Her eyes met mine with a blank, enthusiastic stare. “… Asia,” I said finally. Her brow furrowed in confusion. “Well…” she went on, “but mostly in Europe too.” I nodded dismissively. An awkward silence passed before her brow furrowed once more. “What do your parents think of this trip? Why aren’t they going with you?” I could have asked her the same thing.
After a brief stopover in Zurich, I finally touched down in Moscow. I was viciously scolded by the customs official for no apparent reason — a practice I would soon learn to be the norm throughout most of Russia — and then released into the airport. The airport was a chaotic sea of signs and faces, none of which I could read. I had no idea where to go, so I floated helplessly amidst the flow of bodies towards one end of the airport. By following the flow and mimicking the person in front of me at appropriate times, I wound up on a train headed, well, I didn’t know where. Still, I was making progress, even if it was in the wrong direction.
Then another thing I would soon discover to be the norm throughout most of Russia happened. An attractive girl took the seat next to mine. Having already mastered the Russian word for yes on the plane ride from Zurich, and possessing a decent command of the word for no, I decided to try my hand at a conversation. I found the word for “hello” in my phrase book and started to decipher the mysterious Cyrillic alphabet. The first symbol, resembling misshapen 3, stood for ‘z.’ Next there was a ‘d,’ followed by an ‘r.’ Huh. Z-d-r. The rest of the word looked just as hard. I put the book away and elected to examine the passing scenery in lieu of any conversation. There were other fish in the sea.
Through some stroke of luck, the train dumped me off at an entrance to the metro. From there, I pushed my way through another chaotic crowd, boarding and getting off trains at random, hopelessly lost. Finally I stopped, found the symbols for the name of the train station I was at and compared it to the name of the train station I was trying to get to. Miraculously, of the hundreds of stops on over ten lines in the Moscow system, I was at the right one.
Outside, it was raining. “Delve deep into the heart of the city,” read the promotional text on my Moscow guidebook. As far as I could tell, I had delved deep into somewhere near the pancreas. After wasting a good deal of time discovering why each street had the same name, (it turned out all the streets were called “stop”) I arrived at my destination, a dilapidated Soviet-era apartment block constructed of crumbling cement and soggy cardboard. Supposedly there was a hostel inside. A blast of pigeon wings greeted me as I peeked into the dark entryway, but there were no other signs of life. Despondent, I returned to the streets. The locals who didn’t avoid me were of little help. The sun was setting and I was soaked. My budget didn’t allow for a hotel. I began looking for a big tree, an overhang, or even some cardboard, anything to shelter me and my backpack for the night. As I searched, a wave of helplessness the likes of which I’ve never felt before washed over me. I was alone, halfway around the world and regretting I’d ever left the comfort of the life I knew at home. I could only wonder how the girl from Maine was doing.