I didn’t die in Europe

A year ago, I landed in Europe for a three-week backpacking trip. I didn’t plan to take many pictures, I didn’t plan to blog about it, I didn’t plan to become a full-time traveller — I didn’t even plan to have a good time. I just had one goal: survive.

I’d bought the plane tickets in the middle of the night during my last semester of college without thinking. I tried to refund them afterward, regretting my decision. I would be travelling alone and therefore would probably be mugged/raped/killed.

Unable to refund the tickets and putting a good face on for all my friends at home, I forced myself to get on the plane. Equipped with a new jacket, waterproof boots (at least I THOUGHT they were waterproof), and a backpack with only two outfits, I landed in Europe hoping to survive.

The next three weeks were the craziest, coolest, funnest, most empowering three weeks I’d ever had. I slept on stranger’s couches, tried new food, visited old friends, learned new things about myself, did things I never thought I’d do, saw things I’d always wanted to see, and discovered things I didn’t even know existed. They literally changed me and set a new course for my life.

I’m so grateful to everyone who made last year’s trip possible. Whether it was giving me a tip about new food to try, hooking me up with a couch to crash on, or giving me a ride somewhere, I am so grateful.

I’m also grateful to have so many new friends from all over the world following me now. Your travel tips and friendship make me feel so much safer and more confident as I travel.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity, money, and connections to make travel my current lifestyle. I’m so flipping blessed it’s crazy.

 

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia

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London Temple in Surrey, England

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Oslofjord in Oslo, Norway

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A Roman arch in Verona, Italy

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Feldkirch, Austria

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Walensee, Switzerland

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Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

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A vine-covered house in Howth, Ireland

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This was originally a post on my Instagram, but I thought I’d post it here so it’d be easier to find later.

How to go to a Russian banya

Stripped naked + stuck in a hot room + drowned in ice water + beat with leaves = a Russian banya.

Banyas are the Russian version of saunas, except they make you want to die while you’re in them. They’re real great when it’s all finished, though.

There are three general areas of the banya: the hot room, the cold room, and the hangout room.

In the hot room, the temperature rises above 150°F (70°C) and the humidity reaches 80% or higher, so you just sit and sweat and sweat and sweat. Because you’re sweating so much, you’re supposed wear nothing but a pair of slippers and a felt hat. The hat protects your head from getting too hot and the slippers prevent you from slipping because the floor and your feet are covered in water and sweat.

Sitting there, your heart starts beating hecka fast and you start breathing like you’re running a marathon.

As if that’s not bad enough, you’re also supposed to hit yourself (or have a friend hit you) with a bushel of birch leaves because #Russia.

But slow down there, Turbo! If you’re new to the banya world, don’t sit in the hot room longer than 10 minutes or you’ll pass out and wake up naked on the floor surrounded by Russians. This isn’t a Ke$ha music video, so pace yourself.

After the hot room, you’re supposed to drench your body in ice-cold water. According to Russian folk wisdom, anything involving ice water and buckets is healthy. The idea here is that the hot room opens up your pores and the cold water closes them, squeezing out any nastiness inside.

To cover yourself in ice water you can 1) jump into a pool of ice water (terrible), 2) lay in a tub of ice water (also terrible), or 3) dump ice water on your head (really terrible). If none of these options are available, just go outside and roll in the snow (which is terrible too).

After this hot/cold torture, you’ll go to the hangout room and relax. Take 15 minutes to recover, then go back in and do the hot/cold process all over again. Repeat four times or until you pass out (but remember that I don’t recommend that option).

Afterward, you’ll feel very refreshed. Your blood has circulated through your whole body, you’ve sweated a lot of junk from your system, and the combination of hot and cold leaves your skin with a nice crackly feeling.

But you’ll also be very very tired. You basically just ran a couple marathons and did five ice bucket challenges, so just go to the closest donut shop and chill for the rest of the day (there’s a Krispy Kreme right off of Red Square).

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Pro tips:

-Banyas are supposed to be a social event, so bring a friend if you can. Otherwise you’ll just be that weird naked guy sitting in the corner alone (as opposed to that cool naked guy surrounded by his closest naked friends).

-In between hot/cold sessions, instead of going to the hangout room, if you can find a big tub of warm water to chill in, do it. I did and it was one of the most relaxing things of my life.

-The most authentic banyas are the ones at people’s summer homes. So if you want the real experience, just go into the middle of the countryside, find a stranger’s house, and crawl into their banya!

-If you don’t feel like playing Goldilocks with a stranger’s banya or are stuck in the city, I recommend Sanduny in Moscow. The prices there range from pretty cheap to pretty expensive. I did something in-between and it only cost me $40 (because the exchange rate was bomb). It would have been $10-$15 cheaper if I’d brought my own slippers, hat, and birch branch, though, so if you want to save money, buy those things before coming to the banya (you can find them at a grocery store).

Here’s a video I made right after I went in January!!!!!

Dear Future Russian Missionary

I remember when I got my call to serve as a Mormon missionary in Russia. My literal thought was, “Seriously? I’ll go, but I’m gonna die.”

When I submitted my mission papers, of course there were places I would have liked to serve — England, Australia, SPAIN (ugh, little brothers) — but I was okay serving anywhere. I didn’t have very many friends on missions, so I didn’t have to compare whether or not I was going some place “cool.” I was okay serving anywhere — EXCEPT Russia or Asia (which, ironically …). The cultures of those places didn’t interest me and the languages seemed impossible to learn (which, ironically …).

So when I got the call, I called my twin sister Meredith (who was graduated from college and married and pregnant and WE’RE NOT REALLY TWINS) and our conversation was basically, “Russia for two years … that sucks.”

But I knew the call was from God. The Russian people needed the gospel just like everyone else on the planet, even if they had a weird culture and language.

As I prepared to enter the MTC everyone had something to say about what life as a Russian missionary would be like:

“They don’t like Americans over there.”

“You’re going to see poverty like you’ve never seen before.”

“They don’t smile over there.”

“The people are hard to crack, but they’re real nice on the inside.”

“They’re all communists over there.”

“You’re going to be in the MTC for 12 weeks?!” — it’s 9 weeks now — “That’s torture!”

“You won’t get a whole lot of baptisms over there.”

Or my favorite from a lady who captured everything she knew about Russia in one sentence: “Cold Russian wind blowing through Red Square … Stalin!”

None of this really scared or surprised me since I already figured I might die. But the only piece of useful advice I got came from brother-in-law who’d actually served his mission in Russia. He told me to go without any preconceived assumptions. I didn’t know what it would be like to live outside the US or be a missionary, so it was better to figure my new life out as it happened than to expect the best or the worst.

And he was right! There was so much on my mission I saw and experienced that I would have overlooked if I had been expecting to see something else.

For example, on the bus from the airport to the US embassy, I saw real Russians walking down the street, laughing and smiling, holding hands and talking. These weren’t the tough-to-crack, communist drones I’d heard about. They were real people who laughed and smiled just like Americans. If I had only expected to see unsmiling faces and unhappy people, I wouldn’t have noticed their smiles.

Russia was a lot safer (although still crazy) than I expected it to be. My previous notion of dying on my mission had been based more on ignorance than bravery.

And when you get down to it, everybody who told me about Russia had never actually been there (everyone except my brother-in-law). Everything they knew about Russia, they’d learned from Cold War politics (which are still alive) and James Bond movies (which are also still alive). They knew as much about Russia as you do right now.

So prepare yourself by being willing to see what very few Americans will ever see or believe: that Russians are normal people.

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Rant #1 in the series Rants About Russia.

If you have any questions about serving in Russia (what to pack, etc.), hmu on my contacts page. I’ll be posting more about it too.

Faithful Muslims

“They’re gonna kill us!” I was shouting like a crazy person. I didn’t really believe they’d kill us, but I knew if they caught us, they’d hurt us.

It was the 4th of July and I was less than a month from finishing my mission in Russia. I’d managed to survive this long without getting beat up, which I attributed to street smarts and God loving me just a little bit more than other missionaries.

But I’d done something dumb: I’d “accidentally” punched some drunk dude who’d been holding my greenie comp’s arm and wouldn’t let go. Punching him hadn’t been smart, but the drunk had been getting angry (like drunks do) and I thought it’d be the easiest/fastest way to get rid of him. Anyone who’s actually ever been punched by me knows I hit like a girl, but this punch was more of a shove and was just enough for me to loosen his grip and pull my comp away.

But then we had to run. Running from a single drunk dude is pretty easy since he can barely walk in a straight line, but my hit-and-run had brought enough attention to us that a group of men from an outdoor bar were also chasing us. I guess they were only a bit buzzed because they were catching up to my companion who was behind me.

“They’re gonna kill us!” I kept shouting, hoping it would scare my companion enough to run faster. I was scared enough to run five miles, but he was tired.

I heard them tackle my companion to the ground as they caught him. I turned around, not thinking, knowing I had to somehow pull them off and get both of us out of there before they did too much damage.

It was actually only one guy who’d pulled my companion to the ground and he wasn’t hitting him yet. He was just asking (in Russian), “What happened? Why are you running?” In my head I was like, “Really? You tackled my companion only because you wanted to know why we were running?” (I still don’t understand that logic.) But what I said (in my scared, broken Russian) was, “We have to go! We have to go!” not knowing how to explain the situation quickly in Russian. But he wouldn’t let go, not satisfied with my answer. His friends from the bar were catching up and I didn’t want to be surrounded by a gang of semi-drunk Russians.

Just then more people caught up to us. It was a gang of brown dudes, not drunks from the bar. They made the drunk guy let go of my companion and asked in English what happened. I pointed and said, “You see that guy back there?” — by now the first drunk was a distant, stumbling figure across the road — “He wants to kill us and we have to go!” They actually didn’t understand English very well, but they understood enough to know we hadn’t done anything wrong. They stopped the other drunk Russians from getting to us and followed us halfway home to make sure we were safe.

Aside from a ripped shirt and scraped arm, my companion was fine. We laid on the apartment floor for ten minutes to recover from our run, then called the zone leaders to tell them our crazy story. They laughed and were like, “That’s it? You should try Saratov” (a city in our mission further south).

A couple weeks later, my companion and I ran into one of the brown dudes who saved us. He asked how we were and if we’d had any more trouble. We talked to him a bit. Found out he was a Muslim serving his mandatory military service in Togliatti (the city where we lived; all male Russian citizens have to serve in the army for a year or something). He was a real cool guy, just like almost every other Muslim I talked to during my two years in Russia.

Muslims were consistently some of the nicest people in my mission. They weren’t all nice, but none of them were dangerous. In fact, the safest city in the mission was a city that was predominantly Muslim.

I feel a connection to Muslims because of my mission. Every time I meet one, I say the typical Muslim greeting as-salamu alaykum (Allah’s peace be upon you), to which they respond, Wa-Alaikumus-Salaam (And upon you the peace).

I feel like very few of the people who blame terrorist attacks on the Muslim faith have ever met a Muslim. I can’t remember ever meeting a Muslim or even seeing a mosque in America, so I don’t blame them for not knowing a lot about the faith. But I want them to know:

  1. Muslims are our brothers and sisters in God even if they call him another name.

2. Whether terrorist attacks are carried out by militant Muslims or militant Mormons makes no difference to me. In either case, the attackers are not doing what their religion teaches.

3. On the 4th of July in Russia, I was saved by a group of Muslims.

Why it’s worth going to Russia.

Almost six years ago today, I got my mission call to serve in Russia. When I first realized I would be serving in Russia, I was like, “Crap. Russia.” I didn’t want to go to Russia. The language seemed super hard, the culture and history didn’t seem very interesting, the people never smiled, and I knew it would be a challenge living in a country that had no technology, not even have cars or indoor plumbing.

When I got there in November 2009, I started learning what Russia was actually like.

No technology
First, there ARE cars and indoor plumbing. Before I went to Russia, I thought horses were still the main mode of transportation (the only things I knew about Russia, I’d learned from Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, so can you blame me????), but after being in Russia for a day I quickly realized that cars, indoor plumbing, and even light bulbs are just as common in Russia as they are in America. In fact, the biggest cities and tallest buildings I’ve ever seen are in Russia, so it is definitely just as modern and developed as America.



Unfriendly people
Everyone in America told me that Russians never smiled and were a pretty tough people to befriend. HOWEVER, some of the FIRST THINGS I saw in Russia were couples walking outside holding hands and SMILING, friends walking around together and SMILING, and people just looking like normal people, not like the communist robots I’d heard about. I realized that most of the Americans who’d told me about Russia had never actually been there, so how would they know what Russians are actually like?

Climate
Russia is effing cold. I had heard the word “cold” before my mission, but never actually knew what it meant. I’d lived in California basically my whole life, so the coldest I’d ever felt was, like, 32°F. When I got to Russia, winter was just starting, so it was 32ish°, which I thought was the coldest it could ever be. I was so cold, I wore two scarves: one for my neck and the other for my face. People told me I looked like a Muslim woman.

They’d laugh and say, “You know it’s going to get colder, right?” and I’d laugh and say, “That’s not even possible, right?” But it did get colder. The coldest I ever felt was -40° (which is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet), but that wasn’t typical. -5°F to -15°F was pretty normal. Cold, but livable.

I learned to enjoy the cold, so much so that when I went back to Russia after my mission, I made sure to go during the winter. To me, Russia isn’t Russia if your nose hairs don’t freeze.

Hard language
Yeah, Russian’s hard, at least for me, no getting around that. The alphabet only takes, like, two weeks to learn, but actually speaking the language sucks butt. However, I think being able to understand is much more important than being able to express yourself. Listening for the few words I understood and paying attention to context went a long way in helping me understand what people were saying to me. And, since I had a mission companion, I could rely on him to say what needed to be said.

So the language is daunting, but it isn’t everything.

Uninteresting history and culture
So Russians may not be the cold-hearted people that Americans make them out to be, but they certainly have a colorful history. They’ve existed as a people for nearly 1,000 years, so of course they’ve had some super interesting stuff happen. They were invaded by Huns, they drove the Huns out, they had fake tsars the people elected, they had real tsars the people killed, they had fake tsars they elected then decided to kill, they have beautiful literature and art, they had communism, they sent the first man into space, they had Stalin, they have Putin, and BORIS NEMTSOV WAS SHOT FIVE DAYS AGO OH MY GOSH WHERE IS THE TRUTH AT? So, interesting stuff.

Of course, I didn’t know a lot of this while I was actually living in Russia since I was busy doing the WORK OF THE LORD, but I learned it in college after and it explained a lot of what I’d seen on my mission. So definitely take a Russian history course if you get the chance, especially if you’ve been to Russia before and you’re wondering “What the eff???”

So I ended up having a blast in Russia. I finished my mission three and a half years ago, but I really wanted to go back, so that brings us to the next part of this story ….