Archive for November, 2008

November 10th 2008
Coming Home

Posted under U.S.

The long way home from Moscow was broken up into several legs both to ease the transition and make a couple of convenient stops along the way. We re-entered the United States in Boston and made plans to spend one night in the city to meet little Maaden Rooney – pride and joy of dear friends, Mark and Meredith. At the Boston airport we collected our backpacks for almost the last time and stopped at the information desk to get directions to our hotel. The gentleman at the desk was friendly and helpful and we laughed at the wonderful ease of the English-language transaction. It was good to be home.

With smiles plastered on our faces, we walked to the train stop and found our route. On the train, we listened in wonderment as each stop was announced in English. There was no need to count stops or decipher foreign characters. It was brilliant! Then, as we were changing trains, an altercation ensued nearby where, in between the cursing and Ebonics, threats of people getting shot echoed through the underground station. Whoa, reality check! Suddenly, the stars in my eyes were shrouded by a dark cloud as I was reminded that, while America is the greatest country on Earth, not everything is roses.

Seeing Mark, Mer and Maaden was great. We spent about an hour fawning over the little superstar at the hotel and then went to dinner at a place nearby. The menu was excellent but all we wanted was salad – good old American salad with lots of lettuce and fresh ingredients. This, my favorite food, proved to be the most difficult dish to find on the road. Oh, salad is on a lot of menus around the world but often the main ingredient, instead of lettuce, is potatoes or beets or some distant relative of a recognizable vegetable that defeats the whole purpose of ordering a salad in the first place. Pardon the rant – it’s a sensitive subject. Our first American, non-McDonald’s salads were absolutely divine. It was good to be home.

Early the next morning, we flew to Dallas, where we had purposely inserted an 8-hour layover on our way to Phoenix – our temporary final destination. At DFW Airport, we rented a car and drove to our storage unit where we filled two small roller boards with as many jeans, shoes, and sweaters as we could fit inside. We were there for about two hours, sifting through our possessions, smiling at things we forgot we owned, and dazzled by the breadth of our respective wardrobes.

Next, we drove north to our old neighborhood in Keller to cast our vote in the 2008 Presidential Election. Texas is a die hard red state but, since we have been following the campaign from abroad and have visited so many places where, sadly, people do not have the right to vote or are terrorized into voting for corrupt rulers, we felt strongly that it was important to exercise our right to vote for the next leader of our country.

We drove by our old house next to make sure the new owners were keeping the landscaping up to our standards and to reminisce about the life we left behind to pursue a dream. It was a beautiful house and we loved living there but it was so big for the two of us that sometimes we felt swallowed up by all of the empty space, consumed by a need to fill that space with “stuff”. Seeing that house again only reinforced our desire to start small this time.

We stopped for an early dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Southlake on or way back to the airport. The weather was sunny and warm and we sat on the patio, enjoying the superb American service – the friendliest, most attentive service that you can get anywhere in the world.

We finally arrived at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport around 9pm. Aaron’s mom picked us up and drove us back to her place to reunite with our own little pride and joy – a nine-pound furry angel, named Lena (aliases: Lenasaurus Rex, Little Miss Brownbottom, Poop-a-doo, Little Goodie Four-Paws). Her physical absence from our life made each day on the road bittersweet and it wasn’t any easier on the last day of our trip than it was on the first day. We LOVE our dog!

It was a tearful reunion. She was so excited that she was whimpering uncontrollably as she jumped frantically from one of us to the other, smothering us with wet puppy kisses. Her reaction melted our hearts and she has barely left our sides since. As she slowly learns to understand that Momma and Daddy are never leaving her again, we are making up for fourteen months of lost time. We are relieved to find our little furry angel just as we left her. Grandma has spoiled her well.

As we gradually reintegrate ourselves into American life, the experiences that we have had over the past year-and-a-half will shape our values and desires as well as the way we view the world. We are fascinated by the international stage and more plugged into world news than ever before. We are more conscientious about being better global citizens. We want to give more and consume less. We want experiences more than things. We want to be travelers in our own country – there are brilliant things to see within our own borders. Most importantly, we want to live every day as if it were our last; to always be mindful of the blessings in our life. We anticipate many challenges and temptations as we plunge back in to American consumerism and many of our former vices may rear their heads once again. We can only hope that every choice will be made with deeper wisdom and worldly understanding of what is really important.

It’s good to be home.


November 5th 2008
Russia Concluded

Posted under Russia

Vast and mysterious, rough and raw, with searing cultural intrigue and political history, Russia is endlessly captivating, an appropriate finale to our epic adventure. But Russia almost didn’t happen. It was Aaron’s stubborn determination and the hand of fate that finally saw the Russian visa stickers added to our collection.

After failing at our first attempt to secure a Russian visa in Barcelona, my enthusiasm waned when I realized that our next attempt in Rome would cut into an already packed itinerary. But when Aaron fixes his mind to a task or idea, only God Himself can stop him from achieving it, a quality that I find both admirable and maddening.

On our first day in Rome, with my fabulously easy-going sister, Natalie, in tow, we spent the better part of two hours just finding the Russian Embassy. Despite our dismissal from the Russian Embassy in Barcelona, we thought our excessively bureaucratic stack of documents to be in order and we found ourselves waiting behind a solid, closed door. We had arrived during the posted visa application hours and had confirmed that we were at the right office, yet the door remained inexplicably closed for over an hour as we sat there, twiddling our thumbs and cursing the bureaucrats under our breath. A couple of people attempted to poke their heads inside the door but were quickly shooed away with no explanation. As the minutes passed, my aggravation festered and Aaron’s patience also began to fade. At 10:50am, we made a pact to tear up our documents right there in the embassy in a dramatic scene of contempt if the door did not open by 11:00. We sat on the cold stone steps, staring at our watches and growing emboldened with each passing minute so that the resolved Charade playing out in my mind was becoming increasingly animated. Then, almost at the buzzer, somewhere between 10:58 and 10:59, a sudden click…and the door opened. Once inside, the agent was surprisingly helpful and expedited the processing of our request using the exact paperwork with which we had been denied in Barcelona.

From the first day of our arrival in Saint Petersburg to our last day in Moscow, Russia did not disappoint. Russia has a dizzying number of things to see: beautiful baroque skylines, unique onion-domed cathedrals, fascinating museums, and sober Soviet-era buildings across from modern high-end shopping malls. All corners of Moscow and Saint Petersburg are under constant surveillance by an intimidating number of military and policemen and all corners are connected by one of the most efficient (if not foreign-user-friendly) and utilized public transport systems in the world, which is also heavily policed.

While the language barrier proved to be our biggest challenge to traveling independently in Russia, we found that ordinary people would bend over backwards to help us whenever they could. When we found ourselves standing in the wrong ticket line at the train station one morning, the kind gentleman behind us gave up his place in line to take us outside and explain, in very broken English, which way we needed to go. During one of our most confused moments inside the metro station, a middle-aged woman stopped to offer help and guided us through the underground maze to our connecting line. We found that, beneath those characteristically dour expressions, was genuine warmth and caring.

Our last week in Moscow concluded with strange happenings that were apropos of our Russian adventures. We had wanted to attend an ice hockey game on one of our last nights in Moscow and, with our host Tanya’s help, conducted our due diligence for securing tickets. We were directed to a yellow kiosk outside one of the metro stations that was supposed to sell tickets but, when we arrived, the women working at the kiosk were clueless. We managed to find our way to the arena where two ticket windows were open. We bought two tickets for Saturday’s game, ecstatic about our accomplishment.

When Saturday rolled around, we spent the morning indoors, attending to some business tasks, and then ventured out around 2pm, intending to poke around the nearby university area before heading to the 4:oo game. The university area turned out to be gorgeous with wooded walking trails and a scenic lookout over the city. The weather was beautiful and we walked leisurely along the trail with little regard for reaching the hockey arena before the second period. The arena was a single metro stop away from the university and, when we finally surfaced at the arena stop, we were greeted by hundreds of military and policemen, decked out in full riot gear. We could hear the roaring crowd inside the arena but there was little activity outside and the security forces stood in wait. There were at least six different groups, each with their own uniforms. Naturally, the scene outside and the screams of the hockey fans inside prompted us to conjure up visions of riotous scenarios in which we could find ourselves entangled.

We found our entrance, passed through heavy security screening, and entered the arena to find…soccer. When I first glimpsed the green field, I said, “Oh, it’s field hockey.” Then, in a Twilight Zone moment, we walked further inside and realized that it was not hockey at all but rather a professional soccer game between two Muscovite rivals. We looked at each other, dumbfounded, and just started laughing.

This hilarious mix-up, on our last night in Moscow, was symbolic of the difficulty of independent travel in Russia. It was as rewarding as it was challenging. Russia was full of surprises…beautiful, enlightening, funny surprises. The scenery was breathtaking, the culture and history fascinating.

As this epic fourteen-month journey comes to an end, we are both happy and sad. The most amazing, intense, life-changing chapter in our lives is coming to a close. We have come to feel at home on the road and enjoy the simplicity of living out of our backpacks. We find ourselves addicted to the crazy adventures and, even more so, addicted to learning. We have loved spending all of this time together. It has drawn us closer and bonded us tighter than we ever could have imagined. But all good things must come to an end and, as we think about seeing our family, friends and our sweet little dog, we find ourselves as exhilarated as we were on the first day of this adventure. While we are sad to close such a brilliant chapter in our lives, we are excited to start down a new path and wildly curious to see where it takes us. To conclude with the last three lines from my favorite Robert Frost poem:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


November 4th 2008
Moscow’s Monasteries

Posted under Russia

Having already explored our Moscow must-sees, we committed the following two days to some sights further away. Two monasteries had piqued our interest for their splendor and their proximity to Moscow – Novodevichy, on the outskirts of town, just a short metro ride away, and the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius, located in the nearby town of Sergiev Posad.

Novodevichy Monastery is located southeast of the city center on the Moscow River. Founded in 1524 to celebrate the retaking of Smolensk from Lithuania, it later served as a strategic watch guard, alerting the city of potential invaders. Today the beautiful white-walled complex with red-and-white baroque turrets, shines brightly against the backdrop of a small suburban lake and park. The obligatory gilded onion domes crown the bell tower and cathedrals housed within the fortress. Before we entered the monastery, we admired the view from afar with a lazy walk around the adjacent lake. With the trees holding on to their last golden leaves and the monastery reflecting on the windswept lake, I was, of course, in photography heaven.

The compound is still an operating monastery but the highlights for us were the two special exhibits which displayed the monastery’s impressive collection of Orthodox iconography, art and religious artifacts. There were other notable sights including the Smolensk Cathedral, an imposing bell tower, and the adjacent Novodevichy Cemetery – final resting place for several famous (and infamous) Russians.

The next day we traveled to the town of Sergiev Posad, known as Zagorsk during the Soviet era, and a relatively easy 90-minute trip on the suburban “express” (read: painfully slow) train. Securing tickets was challenging (language barriers and poor signage have made arranging all of our transportation in Russia rather difficult) but the destination was worth the effort. Like so many of the Russian Orthodox monuments that we’ve seen, the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius was striking from a distance, dotting the skyline with its signature onion domes. But the monastery is more than a beautiful postcard picture. It is also a pilgrimage destination for scores of Russian Orthodox Christians who come to venerate the tomb of St Sergius, one of Russia’s most revered saints. St Sergius is entombed within the Trinity Cathedral, where a memorial service is performed for him all day, every day.

In addition to the Trinity Cathedral, the monastery is home to several brilliant buildings. These include the Assumption Cathedral, adorned with its unique star-spangled royal blue onion domes, and a tall, attractive baroque bell tower. We were disappointed to find that many of the buildings that we wanted to see, including the vestry (where the monastery’s opulent treasury is stored), were closed on the day of our visit.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time spent at the monasteries and the metro/train rides added an interesting element of adventure to the days’ exploits. Witnessing a country’s public transport is a true looking glass into its culture. In Russia, millions of people use these services daily, stretching the aging infrastructure to its limits. All of our travels in Russia have been aboard the same trains and buses used by the masses. We’ve been crammed into subway stations during rush hour and sandwiched between locals on long suburban train rides. But it’s all part of the fun. There is a saying that I love: “The journey is the destination.” And nowhere is this more true than in Russia.

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November 2nd 2008
Red Square

Posted under Russia

On our second morning in Moscow, we walked back to Red Square for a more thorough exploration of its incredible buildings. First and foremost, we wanted to see Lenin’s body, which is on display inside a large granite mausoleum along the Kremlin wall. No cameras are allowed inside so we had to check our backpack in an adjacent cloakroom. As with most high-traffic areas in Russia, the movement of pedestrian traffic through the mausoleum was tightly controlled. Having passed through security, we followed the crowd along a sidewalk, passing grave markers of other Russian leaders, including Stalin, and meeting more uniformed security at every bend. Intimidation by numbers seems to be the strategy for Russian military and police. You would have to be mad to step out of line under the watchful eyes of so many armed men.

Inside the mausoleum, we climbed a short, dark stairway into a dark room. In the center, Lenin’s illuminated corpse glowed like the moon inside a glass case. He wore a dark suit and his legs were covered in red velvet cloth. One hand was clenched in a fist but the other lay flat and I recall that his fingernails looked to be covered in yellowish fungus. We stared, dumbstruck, unable to look away. We were paralyzed with morbid fascination. One of the guards inside urged us forward and we started moving, albeit slowly, around the perimeter. It was a powerful experience. Lenin, who murdered over a million of his own people, abused and starved countless others to push through a social and political agenda that simply doesn’t work, is revered. After Lenin’s death, Stalin had Lenin’s brain removed so that he could study the “perfect Communist brain”.

Our minds aflutter with questions about the Communist-era, we made our next stop the State History Museum. We had visited the State Museum of Russian Political History in Saint Petersburg – a schizophrenic collection of artifacts lacking adequate English explanations and logical organization but fascinating nonetheless for those willing to sift through it. I was hoping that the State History Museum in Moscow would fill in the blanks. Russian history has proven to be fascinating but overwhelming, likely due to our lack of background knowledge, though we have scurried to read as much as possible in the past week to bring ourselves up to speed. I wanted to spend a little extra for the English audio guide so as not to miss any important details. We have used audio guides at museums and national tourist sites around the world and all have been rather modern contraptions but not in Russia. In Russia, you get a 1970s cassette tape recorder with two cassette tapes with the sound quality and lack of flexibility that come with such an outdated medium. It was yet another example of how little has been invested in the tourism industry, even in Russia’s flagship city.

The content of the State History Museum was different from what I expected. I wanted a better version of the Political History Museum but the State History Museum touched very little on politics. Instead, it focused on Russian culture dating as far back as the Stone Age. Save for a few school classes on field trip, we had the museum almost all to ourselves.

Our final stop in Red Square was Saint Basil’s Cathedral. We had photographed its brilliant polychromatic domes from every angle but we had not yet been inside.

Commissioned by Ivan the Great (a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible), to commemorate the defeat of the Tatars at Kazan, Saint Basil’s was intended from the start as more of a monument than a church. The story goes that, when the cathedral was completed in 1561, Ivan had his architects blinded to prevent a structure of equal magnificence from ever being built, though other sources dispute the story as little more than a colorful legend.

The interior of the cathedral was nothing like we’d expected. It was a maze of cavernous rooms covered in medieval wall paintings featuring flowers and herbs. Access from one level to another was via narrow, dimly-lit passages. The tiny individual chapels were ill-designed for any religious ceremony. The lack of functionality held true to the patron’s intent that St. Basil’s symbolize war victory rather than anything divine. We came out feeling utterly flabbergasted.

We still had a long walk ahead of us and a list of interesting places to see so we quickly recovered and set out for the medieval neighborhood of Kitay Gorod. Located just southwest of Red Square, the 13th century neighborhood was the first to be established outside the protection of the Kremlin walls. We walked the streets toward a cluster of smaller but still impressive versions of Russia’s unique onion-domed churches. Not long into our foray, we began to notice a large number of luxury cars parked along the street and several black-clad muscle men lurking about in small groups, eyeing us suspiciously as we walked by. Our instincts told us that we had stumbled upon the Russian mafia and we felt an air of uneasiness but decided that our best course of action was to play the role of ignorant tourists – we were conveniently dressed for the part – snapping excessive photos of the churches without a backward glance. The moment passed without incident, of course, but we won’t soon forget that creepy feeling of brushing up against the mob.

Taking the scenic route “home”, we passed by the Lubyanka Building, the former headquarters of the infamous KGB, which now houses its successor, the Federal Security Bureau; the Museum of Modern Art; and, most importantly, the world’s largest and busiest McDonald’s. With the capacity to accommodate up to 700 Hamburglars, the place was a zoo. After standing in a massive queue, we proceeded to suffer through the most excruciating ordering experience in our broad portfolio of international McDonald’s encounters. Out of 36 countries, Russia has posed the biggest language barrier. We did finally manage to communicate our order and get what we wanted but we left feeling defeated nonetheless.

With our epic adventure quickly approaching its end, we are invigorated to finish strong. We are striving to keep our spirits high despite the daily infrastructure and language challenges and absorb every bit of this vibrant and dazzling final destination.

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November 1st 2008
Last Stop: Moscow

Posted under Russia

Moscow. It is the capital city of the world’s largest country and the most populous metropolis in Europe. Home to the Kremlin and Red Square, it was the nerve center of Cold War communism for fifty years. The name Moscow alone elicits images of communist masterminds, KGB operatives and tales of international espionage. But that’s all ancient history. Finally, after years of post-Soviet growing pains, Moscow is the cosmopolitan core of one of the world’s fastest developing economies and a bastion of capitalism. With six days to go, we were excited to explore this last stop on our epic journey around the world.

After nearly missing our train in St Petersburg – one of the very few times on the trip that we’ve been completely unprepared and, consequently, lost – we enjoyed the eight-hour journey and arrived in Moscow surprisingly rested. We easily navigated the metro system and found our cozy flat without trouble. Our friendly host, Tanya, gave us the grand tour of the small, two-bedroom apartment that we’d be sharing with another couple for the duration of our stay. Tanya was great, spoke wonderful English, and the flat was stocked with all of our favorite amenities.

First on our agenda were, of course, the Kremlin and the adjacent Red Square. The Kremlin remains at the heart of Russian politics, a huge fortress complex in the middle of the city on the northern banks of the Moscow River. Kremlin simply means “citadel” in Russian and every medieval town had one; but none was larger than Moscow’s. Originally built in the 1150s, it became the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 14th century. At the end of the 15th century, Ivan the Great commissioned master builders to construct new walls, towers and three great cathedrals, creating much of the Kremlin that we see today. In 1918, at the beginning of the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks leader Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow, and the Kremlin became the nerve center of what would become the USSR.

On approach, the Kremlin is striking. Tall red walls line the perimeter, the tops of onion-domed churches barely visible. In addition to the yellow and white government buildings that dominate the interior, there is an inexplicably out of place concrete and glass concert auditorium, and numerous beautiful cathedrals, each topped with glimmering golden domes. With most of the official buildings off-limits to visitors, we spent the majority of our time exploring the cathedrals within the Kremlin walls. We walked from one magnificent cathedral to another, first admiring the unique exterior architecture of each, and then the iconography that literally covered their interiors from floor to ceiling. Every artistic medium was beautifully represented: frescoed walls, carved and tempera-painted wooden icons, gilded silver iconostases, and marble tombs. We were mesmerized by the abundance of religious art.

Red Square is surrounded by the State History Museum to the north, GUM shopping center to the east, St Basil’s Cathedral to the south and Lenin’s Mausoleum to the west. Passing metal barricades and baton-wielding policemen, we walked through the main entrance and under the Voskressensky Gates. Immediately, we spotted the ostentatiously colorful St Basil’s Cathedral ahead in the distance. We continued walking over the gray cobbled road, admiring the elaborate red façade of the State History Museum to our right and the beautiful Kazan Cathedral. With the afternoon sun illuminating the square, I wandered around, taking photos from every angle.

We stopped in the middle of the square and looked around. More than two decades after perestroika, Gorbachev’s period of reform, there was still a palpable Cold War feel here that I couldn’t shake. Lenin’s mausoleum, still heavily guarded by soldiers, inexplicably remains a focal point on the square even after the failed experiment of communism. The massive wall and foreboding towers behind the mausoleum separate the Red Square from the Kremlin, a physical reminder of the Soviet Union, distinguishing the huddled masses from the powerful elite. Yet, incongruously, one of Russia’s finest luxury shopping malls shines like a beacon of capitalism no more than 200 meters away. And the boldly beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral is so awe-inspiring that you keep coming back to it again and again. Red Square is one big contrast – and I loved it. It’s big enough to exude power, but small enough to be intimate. On our trip we have seen many of the grandest plazas in the world but Red Square was, by far, my favorite.

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