Making Borsch in Obirek – Ukraine

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I took the train to Bakhmach and got off at the wrong stop. On the wrong side of the tracks, I walked around the back of the train and what I saw has been burned into my memory since then. To the right was a grey stone building. Two stories tall, it looked like an abandoned house for railway workers. Cutting in front of the house, parallel to the train tracks, was a dirt road. There were several people riding ancient bikes, and further down a handful of instantly recognizable, one story “Продукты”. This translate exactly as “Products” and if that draws comparison to the type of stores we had in the 1800’s, that’s a more apt analogy than a convenience store. They carry everything you’d expect, like Pepsi and beer, but they also sell meat, fresh bread, and whole frozen chickens.

The train gained speed and pulled away from me, while I stood motionless. It was the most vivid manifestation of time travel that I had ever experienced. Scanning the road I saw a young man riding a bike, with a beautiful girl in a fluorescent green dress sitting on the handle bars. It reminded me of a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidwhen Paul Newman shares the future with Butch’s girlfriend.

Recovering, I walked to the Продукты, my back sweating in protest of the overweight backpack. Facing the woman working there, I used my limited Russian to ask for two things. Cold water and the number of a taxi. I took the slip of paper from her hand, paid for the water, then staggered out of the store like a gawky teenager.

After a phone call and a fifteen minute wait, I’m sitting in the front seat of a taxi. Leaving the village behind, we drove down a road that cut massive green fields in half. Fields far larger than any I’ve ever seen in the eastern United States. My driver, Alexei, abused the throttle and we hurtled past horse drawn carts. Discordantly, this took place while Drake was rapping about bitches and success on the blown out speakers. The world outside the windows of the Russian made taxi suggested that the industrial revolution was just over the horizon. The music inside reminded me that places like T-O-R-O-N-T-O exist and that women are abundant there.

What’s Smaller Than a Village?

In English, short of saying “outpost” or “colony”, we don’t have a good word to describe anything smaller than a village. In Ukrainian and Russian they do. It’s called a “Хутор” (Hooter) and they look something like this. My hooter was a collection of about a dozen houses, arranged along a quarter mile of well paved road. The houses were all one story, built the same way that they’ve been built for hundreds of years. We passed by massive gardens, horse stables, free range children, pig pens, and pulled up in front of the place that I was going to stay.

The first thing I noticed was a fence running in front of the buildings. It abolished the view so that I could only see the top half of a barn and a home. As I was pulling my ignorantly packed bag from the trunk, a head popped over the fence. On top of head is cap, which didn’t seem to do much as the face had picked up a healthy tan from working outside.

“Hey” said the face, with a smile and Russian accent that you could stick a fork into.

“Привет” I replied . I had learned that if I wanted to practice my Russian, I needed to speak it even when people addressed me in English. I traded my taxi driver 200 Grivna for the twenty minute ride, then off he went. Back in the direction of relative civilization. A bustling city by comparison to my new home.

Meeting the Ukrainians

Two days later and I had met almost everyone living at the farm. Besides me there was one other volunteer, named Olga. She was several years older than me, Ukrainian, and spoke English to put my Russian to shame. Leonard, the head of the household, was a filmmaker and at a festival in Poland. He left behind his very pregnant wife and their two daughters. Finally, there was Mama Luda. Leonard’s mother and the senior member of the mismatched crew. Mama Luda was a lovely person and I spent a great deal of time helping her around the kitchen. For example, the water situation was interesting. While there was running water, it wasn’t a fully developed system yet. Water came out of a plastic spicket and my job was to fill up the five gallon pail of water for the kitchen. I also had the privilege of filling up the hand washing sink, and the large plastic containers that we used to wash dishes.

Another job was lighting the large wood burning stove in the morning, and keeping a fresh supply of firewood in the kitchen. Life at Obirek was traditional and fun. I’ve always enjoyed work that feels meaningful. Working as a cashier in a supermarket and bussing tables in a creperie never offered me any satisfaction, and I often felt like shit after my shift. On the other hand, when Mama Luda is cooking dinner and had to have water, that was satisfying job to see to. Especially when I knew the results would be delicious.

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I really enjoyed Russian food. Most assume that all Russian food is pickled, scaled, or somehow associated with Vodka. While there certainly is that subset, there’s more to it. Mama Luda consistently cooked delicious dishes that would convert any skeptic. Green borsch, red borsch, dumplings, potatoes, kasha, and shuba. I ate well every day, and enjoyed the experience of eating traditional food, prepared by a seasoned cook, made in the most antiqued kitchen that I’d ever lit a fire in.

Second Language Cooking Lessons

Despite my appreciation of the meaningful work, after ten days I was ready to leave Obirek. My feelings about gardening were mixing with a craving to start working online, and I knew it was time to get back to Kiev. However, before I left there was something that I really wanted to do. Using my limited abilities with the Russian language, I explained to Mama Luda that I would jump at the chance to cook Ukrainian borsch. Would she be generous enough to teach a young American how to prepare the best soup in the world?

I knew this would be an interesting experience because of the language barrier. My conversational Russian was decent, but I was lost like a tourist in New York when it came to verbs like cut, grate, slice, peel, boil, fry, and almost every other food related action. Determined to make the best of it, we gave it a try.

Every new word Mama Luda taught me pushed out an old one that I had learned five minutes ago. The whole thing would have been a mess if I hadn’t had a notebook with me. Writing half in Russian, half in English, I began to record the experience of cooking borsch. I wrote an entire post with the recipe and cooking instructions, so I won’t get into details. There I was, a twenty-three year old American, learning how to cook a famous Russian / Ukrainian dish, from a grandmother who grew up under the Soviet Union. Thankfully countries change and barriers are broken. Grudges are forgotten and swept under the rug of time. I spent thirteen months in Russia and Ukraine, and in that time I was never greeted by anything but warmth and good emotions. I learned how to cross country ski, curse in Russian, drink vodka with pickles, and cook borsch. And most of all, I learned that there’s a world out there and it’s quite a bit different than how the news makes it out to be.

Why Do People Who Join the Peace Corps Get Depressed?

Disclaimer: I didn’t actually come up with any of these ideas myself. Nor did I even do any research. All of what follows came directly from an interview that Sebastian Junger did with Tim Ferriss on the Tim Ferriss Show. Although you probably don’t recognize the name, you probably know some of Sebastian’s work. He wrote The Perfect Storm and co-directed the widely acclaimed film Restrepo.

Lately he’s been researching tribal societies and conversely, the effect of living a decidedly non-tribal society like our own. His exploration into this topic is what led him to discover that half of all Peace Corps volunteers become depressed after returning home. What follows is an edited version of an email that I sent to my sister, who is joining the Peace Corps after college, and as such the writing has a unique flavor.

The Peace Corps and Depression

So here’s the deal. The Peace Corps doesn’t actually cause depression, it’s our society that causes it. Let me explain.

Sebastian Junger is an expert on tribal ways of living. He’s done a lot of research with Native American tribes, and other small community based systems the world across. One of the things that he noticed is very interesting. Back in the day Native Americans would capture white settlers. They would kill some of them, sure. But others they would welcome into their tribe. And the thing is, when they took someone into their tribe, that person instantly became a fully recognized part of the community. They were treated the exact same as everyone else. No hazing or bullshit.

Naturally, other white settlers would come back and recapture these “hostages”, bringing them back to “civilization”. What they found is that a lot of the people who had lived with the Native Americans liked it a lot more! In fact they would run away from their “valiant” saviors, and go back and join their tribe. There are reasons for this, if you want to learn them you have to check out the podcast.

So fast forward to today.

You’re in the Peace Corp. You go to a small village in Africa. You live in a village of fifty, sixty, seventy people. You live there for two years and get very used to it. It’s how we lived for thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even millions of years. It feels right and natural to live like this, and you develop a strong sense of community. Now you come back home to America. Everyone lives in a large house in their own room. Their are fences between the homes. Their are douche fucks like the Dolces (our evil neighbors) who seem to hate you. Everyone is on a cell phone. Relationships seem superficial. You’re used to living on a village where people can depend on each other, literally, to survive. Now you are meeting people who care about celebrity gossip and maintaining a manicured self image. The lifestyle is inherently solitary and materialism abounds.

You get depressed.

You miss your village, you want to runaway, back to the seemingly displeasing lifestyle, which is actually not that displeasing at all. You have no friends in the USA who you can relate to. Or maybe you do but they’re on the other side of the country, certainly not in our town of 3,000 people.

You feel alone and crummy.

And that’s why 50% of the people who come back from the peace corps get depressed. You learned what it’s like to live in a society where everyone can fully depend on everyone else. All people are close and you know that even the people you don’t like aren’t going to turn you over to the lions. Then there’s America, where people kill their spouses for life insurance money.

Makes you think.

Visiting the International Buddhist Center – Cambodia

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The trip starts as many trips start in Asia, I need to find an excuse to rent a dirt bike. Rather than ask the people working at our hostel about the tourist destinations, I open Google Maps and look at the area surrounding Phnom Penh. After five minutes I find the International Buddhist Center. After seven minutes I’m positive that it’s worth checking out.

Joanna says it sounds cool, and we decide to make it a picnic. I go to the lobby and have the guy behind the desk summon me a dirt bike. Then we start looking for a place to get picnic food. Finding a sandwich shop in Asia is like trying to peel an onion with a chopstick, and we go through all of the brochures to find one place that looks decent. We change, then meet the dirt bike man in the lobby. He confiscates my passport in exchange for the keys, and I pay him with a crisp $20 bill.

Google Maps has given me the suggestion that the Buddhist Center isn’t that far away from our hostel. If you measure it strictly in terms of miles or kilometers, this is true. However, there was something else that was going to make this the most harrowing experience on a motorcycle that I would ever have. Something fluid like a river, loud like a hornet’s nest, and with an unpleasant aftertaste of insanity.

Don’t Mind the Sidewalk

The first twenty minutes is intense but I adjust quickly. We’re still in the city, the road resembles a road, and the traffic law atrocities being committed aren’t enough to summon the UN Peacekeepers. Our dirt bike is an older make but it’s built like a tank. It has a deep guttural exhaust sound that lets everyone know we have a full size 250cc engine. Since me and Joanna weigh no more than a single fat American, we make good time.

Driving towards the outskirts the city falls down around us. The buildings become more squat and their outsides more tarnished. Even these crusty looking apartments look nice compared to what comes next; the one room thatch houses built of materials assorted and unknown. These buildings give a good idea of how most people live in Cambodia, and I stare at them whenever I feel like I can spare a second. I think that every American who likes to complain about minor trivialities should be forced to live here for a week.

Potholes begin to appear. They give our road, ostensibly named Highway 1, the appearance of the pockmarked face of an acne afflicted teenager. In addition, the boundaries separating the road, from everything that is not the road, become a matter of interpretation. As soon as traffic begins to bunch, schools of scooters drive off onto the area where a sidewalk should be. They leave tiny rooster tails behind them as they plow through dust and gravel. Like a sardine I follow the crowd. Even with the dirt bike it’s difficult driving, and it’s a testament to the skill of the Cambodians that they’re able to handle this jarring terrain on tiny scooters with basketball sized tires.

Getting further outside of Phnom Penh, in the area that would be the suburbs in an American city, the traffic grows more gnarly. We’re forced to ride within several inches of semis and dump trucks who I assume are all piloted by sociopaths. I don’t imagine that any of these drivers would lose sleep over grinding a couple of people into the road. We’re so close that I can brush my shoulder against massive tires.

However, of more pressing concern is the engine. The only thing keeping it from boiling alive is cool air rushing past. At the moment it’s 90 degrees outside, we’re driving 10 mph in a low gear, and I can feel the heat from the gasoline explosions spreading through our seat and into my jeans. Setting aside my initial thought that these old bikes are built like Scottish fortresses, I begin to wonder how reliable they really are.

Follow the Leader

Fifteen minutes of hell and then we’re through the worst of it. The traffic has thinned from brain aneurysm to the relatively comfortable level of extremely stressful. We’re just starting to regularly reach speeds of 20mph when I feel that something isn’t right. The steering feels mushy and the engine is working overtime to maintain our speed. I look down and see that the front tire is half flat. Well past the city, we’re on a dirt highway that looks like it belongs in Africa. We have about $25, our cellphones can’t make calls, and I’m not prepared to handle this. A quarter mile down the road and the tire is done.

We get off and I’m emotionally wrecked. Driving through torrents of terrorist traffic for the last hour has left me functioning at the level of a five year old who hasn’t had his nap. I feel like throwing the dirt bike in the a ditch and drinking six beers in short succession.

Joanna takes over.

In places like Cambodia and Vietnam you’ll notice that on the side of the road, every half mile or so, there’s a small garage. We find one almost immediately and through vigorous sign language we learn that they don’t do tire repairs. However, they do let us use their cellphone. I call the English speaking guy at the rental shop, who asks where we are.

“I’m not really sure. Somewhere on Highway 1, outside Phnom Penh. We’ve been driving for an hour.”

This draws a moment of amused silence before he answers; “Tire repair your problem. You pay. Go to shop on road, You find shop, many shop there. You pay.”

“Ok” I reply, feeling uncharacteristically defeated. Joanna continues to lead. The mechanic who can’t fix a flat tire gestures for us to go across the road. Joanna bounces across first, and I stand with the dirt bike, waiting for a break in traffic. It feels like playing Frogger, but with higher stakes and less lives.

Tire Repair in Cambodia

By this point I would have followed Joanna if she walked off a cliff. I still feel emotionally whipped and I want the problem to be solved without having to think. I push the dirt bike into the shop on the other side of the road, and immediately there’s some confusion about whether they can fix the tire. They try to whisk us back onto the street, insisting they don’t do this kind of repair. We refuse to move, and insist right back that yes, whether they know it or not, they do. Coming to their senses, a young Cambodian boy puts the bike up on a stand. We get a pair of the plastic chairs that grow on trees in Asia, and sit down to watch as they begin the repair.

Having pulled the tire off and taken out the tube, the three young guys working on it locate the hole. They put a patch on the tube and then it’s time to secure it. What happens next would be to environmentalists what watching a chicken get it’s head cut off is to PETA supporters. The boys, none of whom could conceivably be a day over 18, take out a device that looks like a metal shot glass with a handle on it. One of them shakes a can, and then squirts a long stream of pitch black goo into the metal cup. Without delay another boy valiantly tries to set the rubbery black goo on fire. It refuses to light. He pours lighter fluid on it and tries again.

Success!

They use the heat generated from this ozone hazard to melt our patch on, while me and Joanna comment on tire repair in Cambodia. We’re not sure, but it seems like the type of thing that would cause an American mechanic to have a stroke.

Eating Lunch with the Kids

Environment be damned, we get the tire fixed! After half an hour the dirt bike is reassembled, and our young mechanics have crossed a month off of their lifespans by nonchalantly inhaling great deals of the black goo smoke.

“How much?” We ask, as I pull out my wallet.

One of the should-be-in-school mechanics holds up three fingers. It’s three dollars. He could have asked for five times as much and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. I give him $6. Joanna, who is several magnitudes better at languages than me, thanks them. The tire is solid and the motor has had a chance to cool. After donning our silly helmets Joanna gives me the thumbs up, and we clamber over the trench, back into no man’s land.

The next forty-five minutes go smoothly. With only minimal backtracking we find the correct artery to take us to the Buddhist Center. The road is dusty orange, the color of sunset and nuclear war. While I don’t have the ego to believe that we’re anywhere near the first Westerners to drive down this rural dirt path, I don’t believe that it’s a daily occurrence either.

Messing with Google Maps we have some difficulty finding the Buddhist Center. So when we turn a bend and find a temple, we decide to stop and have lunch. On the right side of the road is an elementary school with dozens of cheerful kids running around and screaming. We go to the other side, and walk through a set of gates that admit us onto the grounds. Beneath several large trees are some picnic tables and we sit down to eat our Fatboy subs.

In the shade, the wilting December heat feels less intense. Further into the walled off grounds are a group of young students, dressed in the traditional orange garb of monks. They look at us eating in their cafeteria and don’t seem to think much of it. I’m struck by what it must be like to grow up here. Even though we’re only about twenty or thirty miles from downtown Phnom Penh, it might as well be a thousand. I’m sure that some, if not most, of these kids have never been more than ten miles from where they’re standing right now. While the area is beautiful it’s also very antiqued. I see little that reminds me of home, and a lot that suggests that I’m in a rural part of a country that’s on the opposite side of planet from New York.

All the Buddhas

A beautiful Buddhist school in CambodiaBefore we leave the monk school we decide to see if we can get inside the temple. It’s one of the most ornate, beautifully carved structures I’ve ever seen, and as Joanna is walking up to it I snap a picture. Unfortunately it’s locked, and we can only guess what it must look like on the inside.

Back at the dirt bike we strap helmets onto our brains. I disengage the kill switch, push the starter and the engine explodes to life. With the phone in GPS mode we conclude that it’s only a short drive to the Buddhist Center. I’m already impressed by what we’ve seen, and I wonder how our final destination could possibly top this. In retrospect, I can see that that’s like visiting a zoo, and then wondering how Africa could be any more grand.

Following the phone, we take a left onto a one lane road and the Center begins to show on the horizon. It’s big. It’s really big. It’s what the Kremlin is to the White House: freaking gigantic! Coming to stop directly in front of it we can see that it’s actually a series of distinct buildings. Each one is about the size of a soccer field, perhaps a bit smaller. They’re several stories tall and done up in brilliant colors. While each structure has the same general outline, they’re all different on the inside. Many BuddhasOne has a large Buddha sitting beneath a roof, another has a sleeping Buddha surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of small Buddhas carved of stone.

The first place we visit is my favorite. In the center of the enclosed court is a golden Buddha. Twenty feet tall and glowing with meaning. Sitting in front are several other statues, presumably the disciples of Buddha. The court yard is restricted by a large, intricately detailed wall. Like every Buddhist structure that I’ve seen, this wall is topped with sharp spikes shaped like horns. I still don’t know the significance of these sharp thorn projections, but I do know that they’re ubiquitous in Asia.

The Road Less Traveled

A large golden Buddha at the international buddhist center in Cambodia At the international Buddhist Center there are five elements instead of the usual four. Earth, wind, fire, water, and heat. As we walk further down the line of temples and shrines, I’m struck by how oppressive the heat is. It feels like a physical force that could be cut, packaged, and sold in Siberia for a profit. I feel admiration for the men and women who spent years building these incredible buildings in a pizza-oven environment.

Coming to a building at the end of the line, we find a female monk with her young son. Joanna bows, I nod, and she bows back to Joanna. Then, before we have a chance to walk around, she signals that she’d like us to follow her. We go inside a modern looking hall, climb a few steps up onto the platform, and go through a narrow door behind the stage. We ascend one staircase, and another. Then the monk opens a set of great doors and leaves us standing in a large dome above the hall. The inside is decorated like a forest, the ceiling curves away from us, and we’re alone with our thoughts.

Out of the city, away from the usual tourist traps, we’ve manged to find something totally unique. Persistence and a sense of adventure have given us an experience that few people visiting Cambodia will ever know about. While nerve racking trips like ours are best enjoyed on an irregular basis, if you travel and only go to the most trampled spots you’ll end up missing out on a lot. Throw out the Lonely Planet guides, go to Google Maps, and create your own unique adventure! That’s what the International Buddhist Center was to us, and it was responsible for a daytime full of lasting memories that will continue for a lifetime.

Can You Afford to Live in New York City?

Before we even look at the question of whether you can afford it, a better question may be: why would you want to live in New York? For me the answer is easy: I love it here! Let’s look at it more logically though. You are the average of the five people closest to you, and to a lesser extent, the greater mass of people around you. When you live in New York you’ll be surrounded by some of the most successful people on the planet. You’ll go out to the bar and sit next to a millionaire. You’ll take the subway and bump into someone who is changing the world. Even if you don’t talk to all these people, there’s a certain energy they give off. It’s a healthy, positive energy that is totally lacking in people who have resigned themselves to jobs they don’t like and drinking beer on the weekends.

You’ll also find new opportunities. There is so much happening in New York that it’s fairly easy to find employment. Unlike the French, New Yorkers love talking about work. It’s a common conversational topic. So if you do something well, and you start telling people about it, you may quickly find yourself starting job opportunities in the face. It’s not what you know (all though it really sort of is), but who you know.

Finally, there’s the excitement of living here! There’s always something to do. Free concerts, high end clubs, the beach, infinite restaurants, and anything else. You can get to all of it on the subway too. Forget about car payments, maintenance, and repair. Put that money towards rent. Which is the first topic we’ll cover.

Paying Rent

This will be your largest expense in New York. If you invested in Twitter early on, you can probably afford to live somewhere like Chelsea, where a studio rents for a cool $3,000 a month. However, if your last name isn’t Rockefeller, there are still plenty of other options. If you have $1,500 a month you can rent an apartment somewhere like Bushwick. This is a “starter neighborhood”, in the same way that people buy “starter homes”. Still too much? The minimum you can expect to pay is about $600 to $700 a month. That won’t get you your own place, but a room in someone else’s apartment. That’s always how I’ve done it and it has always worked out good.

When looking for a place to live, Craigslist has the best selection. You can also try Airbnb, but I’ve found that they typically have higher prices. When looking for places to live, particularly cheap places, there’s a blessing and a curse. Typically most places of any quality rent within 24-48 hours. Don’t even bother setting up a viewing for next week, it won’t happen. But the blessing is that there are hundreds of new places added every single day, giving you a massive selection to choose from.

Buying Food

Unless you shop at Whole Foods, you’ll generally find that food isn’t that expensive in New York. In fact, many products have comparable prices comparable to anywhere else in the country. On the other hand, don’t expect to eat out much. While there are some cheap restaurants, most charge a lot in order to pay their huge rent bills. So if you’re on a budget, plan on cooking for yourself. Depending on how much you eat, $200 – $300 should be enough for all your groceries for the month, and a beer or two at the bar.

Getting Around

15th St NYC Subway StationHere’s where New York shines, you don’t need a car! The vast subway and bus system will take you almost anywhere you need to go. Or you can just walk. New Yorkers love to walk, and when you’re in Manhattan you’ll notice far fewer overweight people than you see in other cities. An unlimited MTA card is $130 a month, which will get you all over the city, from the Bronx to Brooklyn. In the event that you really need a car, there are lots of ride sharing programs.

Living Like a Monk

Looking at the minimum amounts you’ll need to pay: $700 for rent, $300 for food, and $130 for an MTA card, they add up to $1,130 a month. Might as well round up to $1,200. If you get a full time job at $9 an hour you can bring in about  $1,200 a month after taxes. You won’t be living like a playboy, but you won’t be getting evicted from your apartment either.

Ideally though you’re coming to New York to earn more than $9 an hour. Hopefully you’re coming here to pursue a goal or a passion. Or because you have large plans for the future, in which case I would suggest looking at it as an investment. Pay more now, become a better person in the long run. If you’re willing to be careful, you can make that dream a reality!

Why I Recommend Travelling to Dubai

Dubai is the most contentious place that I’ve traveled to. I’ve met people who have been there and loved it, and others who say that they wouldn’t go there if they were given a free plane ticket. My take on it is this. Dubai exists, for better or for worse, and therefore it deserves to be seen. Further, it’s an excellent soft-core introduction to Arab culture. Having never been to Egypt I can’t say for sure, but I Imagine that it’s something like New York City crossed with Cairo. A sleek blend of an extremely modern lifestyle, blanketed all around by sand dunes. A place where it’s common to see underpaid migrant workers walking past cars worth more than the GDP of Nigeria. You might not like that such things happen, but refusing to look at the problems isn’t going to make them disappear either. In any case, this is why I liked Dubai, and this is why I believe that you should travel there too.

It’s a City That Shouldn’t Exist

Dubai has risen at the edge of two hostile environments. Behind the city is the desert, where the heat can reach 115 degrees in the summer. To the front is the Persian Gulf, a body of water saltier than a meal at McDonald’s. There’s nothing life-giving to hint at the populous city that Dubai has become. And yet there it is. The world’s tallest skyline, built on sand and poking into the rich sky. As if that’s not enough, they built a massive, octopus shaped island into the gulf. Pictures like this one due a horrible injustice to the actual scale of The Palm. It’s massive. And at the moment it’s nearly deserted. Few people have moved in and there’s no restrictions on where you can drive. I imagine that in the future the average person won’t have such a high level of access to one of the most grandiose pieces of real estate ever conceived.

The Locals Would Lose in a Riot

Dubai Dry Dock WorkersAbout 80% of Dubai’s population is made up of expats. Think about that when you blame your own country’s problems on foreigners. In Dubai, four out of five people were not born there. As you walk around, or take the metro, you’re exposed to a baffling number of ethnic groups and languages.  I walked down to the Dubai docks and took this picture of East Asian workers just getting off their shift. Fascinating. Demonstrations and unions are illegal in Dubai, but imagine if every single underpaid worker got together and decided to strike. The city would be crippled. This is unlikely, but I believe that it’s interesting to visit a place with such a skewed population.

The Food Defies Expectations

Dubai has the best food of any city that I’ve visited. I knew in advance, before I left, that I would miss eating there. The array of restaurants caters to all taste buds. I ate meat with my hands, wiped plates of spicy rice clean, and left a large tip at a restaurant that only served dishes made out of eggs. The grocery stores had an exotic array of foods that I couldn’t identify, and satisfying prices on the ones that I could. I wish that I had bought more figs and brought them to Hanoi with me.

Still Not Convinced?

Some very smart people have said that Dubai will not exist in fifty years. Are they right? Who knows, but it does seem reasonable to assume that Dubai won’t exist, in fifty years, in all the same glory. Today it’s home to the super car, the helicopter executive, and the world’s tallest building. That, combined with its audacity, topped with the food, makes it a city worth visiting. You’ll also be able to get an idea of what it’s like to visit an Arab country. If you like it, you can go full-out and visit a place like Saudi Arabia. If not, well there’s always Southeast Asia..

The Easiest Way to Learn Russian

Captain JackIf you’re thinking about learning Russian the first thing I would ask is this. How dedicated are you? In Pirates of the Caribbean there’s a scene I like.

“How far are you willing to go to save her?” Captain Jack Sparrow ask Will.

“I’d die for her!” Says the enraptured son of Bootstrap Bill Turner.

Well ask yourself, how far are you willing to go to learn Russian? You’re not going to have to kill yourself, but you are going to have to dedicate a significant amount of time to reach a basic level of fluency. Something like studying an hour a day, every day, for more than a year. Are you willing to put in that kind of effort? Because while there are easy and effective ways to learn Russian, they still take time. With that in mind, in this article I’ll tell you about how to learn Russian effectively without spending thousands of dollars on university courses.

Preply

Preply is a Ukrainian based company and they specialize in finding language tutors. If you want to take Russian lessons with a native speaker, this is the simplest and most cost effective way to do it. Some Russian teachers charge as little as $5 per hour-long Skype lesson. That means you can have 5 hours of class every week for less than it costs to go out for a Russian style night of drinking.

What’s great about Preply is that you’ll get to hear a native speaker, you’ll be speaking right from the beginning, and your classes will be one-on-one. Questions, don’t understand something? You can ask for an explanation immediately. When I was studying with a teacher on Preply I would often bring lists of questions that would take up our whole hour. That made the lessons fun for me and easy for her. We both won!

Naturally, there are some disadvantages. The first is that all of the lessons take place on Skype. Sometimes your teacher will be hard to hear or the connection may drop. Another disadvantage is that many of the tutors you find on Preply are not actual teachers. Instead their native speakers who may, or may not, have some teaching experience. That means difficult grammar questions often go unanswered.

That being said, I think that the pros heavily outweigh the cons. Think about this. A single semester of a college Russian class could run you $500. If that’s a 101 class you’ll be in there with fifteen other people and you’ll rarely, if ever, get individual attention. For the same $500 you can get one-hundred one-on-one Russian language lessons on Preply. Which one do you think is going to be more effective?

Michel Thomas Tapes

These tapes are genius. I haven’t used them for Russian, but I’m using them for German and I’m very impressed. After a few weeks I learned more than 100 words and was able to create logical sentences that my German grandmother understood. When learning how to speak Russian in University, I made it to that same level after two years of study. Let me say that again..

Michel Thomas tapes, three weeks to form sentences and be understood.

Russian class at my university, two years..

Now Russian is hard and I’m a bad student, but it’s not that hard and I’m not that bad of a student. The problem with university classes is that you don’t learn to speak Russian, you study grammar. Grammar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That can feel overwhelming and only in a minority of the cases does it actually produce a person who becomes fluent in the language.

That’s why I recommend the tapes. They get you speaking immediately and Michel does an excellent job of explaining the Russian language. You can get a trial lesson for about $10 and if you like it you can buy the rest of the series at a large discount on eBay.

Learn More

If you’d like to discover even more about learning Russian you can download my creatively titled free eBook: How to Learn RussianHowever, if you just want to get started now, and you want to apply a Tim Ferriss, 80/20 analysis, go to Preply and find a tutor today. It’s the fastest way to learn Russian and it’s reasonably priced. You can’t go wrong.

Good luck, let me know how it goes!

Leave Your Job and Travel; 7 Stories from Real People

Have you ever thought about quitting your job to travel? It sure has a nice appeal. You get to leave the office, the coworkers, the working hours. You can go somewhere exotic and discover a new culture. There’s nothing wrong with that. But how to make it a reality? Well it’s possible. I’ve encountered plenty of people who have shown me that you can quit your job to travel, and it’s easier than you think. Here’s how they’ve done it.

Paul from Quebec

Fifty pounds overweight, his belly travels in a different time zone than the rest of him. It betrays his job: a truck driver. Every year Paul works fifty or sixty hour weeks for eight months straight. He lives on a budget, and then he takes a leave and travels for four months. I met him in Malacca and we talked about places that we had both visited in Thailand.

David from California

I met David in Singapore and he said I was the first American that he had talked to in six months. His story is a good example of  how to quit your job and travel the world. After graduating from University he bought a pallet of wine and moved to China. It took him six months to sell it all, then he moved to South Korea to teach English. After two years he quit that job and took a one way flight to Singapore. He’s in no hurry to find more work and has enough saved to live leisurely.

Mark from Quebec

I checked Mark into the hostel I was volunteering at in Ukraine, and in the process I learned his story. He worked at a high level job at a brewery in Canada. Realizing that youth provides the best opportunity for freedom, he embraced the quit work and travel movement. By the age of twenty-eight he had saved eighty-thousand dollars. He allowed himself $2,000 a month, and planned to travel for two years straight. I met him halfway through his journey, and the last time I saw him he was on his way to Hong Kong.

Tim from England

Tall and skinny, I met Tim in Malaysia. He was travelling through Southeast Asia with his South Korean girlfriend. Earlier he had worked as an English teacher in Seoul, but had decided to quit work and travel. He had enough savings to live half a year in the ridiculously under-priced Malaysia and he was making his best go of it. I liked his girlfriend better, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was happy with his choice to leave his work and explore the world.

Kenny from Buffalo

I don’t know what Kenny plans to do about his crushing student loans, but that’s not stopping him from travelling. We first met in Moscow and we’ve kept in touch since then. Currently Kenny works in South Carolina for an insurance firm. In August he’s quitting his job to travel to Hungary to teach English. He might end up paying the financial price later on, but that’s always better than living with the regret of knowing that you could have gone out into the world but didn’t.

Jack from Australia

Jack checked me into my favorite hostel in Vietnam and he was a constant figure at our four o clock, drunken volleyball games. Tired of working in Australia, Jack saved a small amount of money and bought a one way ticket to Asia. Living on a budget, he made it work by volunteering at a hostel in Mui Ne, and drinking slightly less than the rest of us. Volunteering at a hostel is a fantastic way to make your money last, and I’ve written a post on the subject.

Andrew from New York City

A schoolteacher in the Bronx, Andrew is one of the most dedicated travelers that I’v ever met. I met him in Ukraine where he was staying for just a few days before going to North Korea. I don’t know what the stop was after that, but it certainly wasn’t home. Not content with just travelling during the summer, he recently quit his job and has now found work in South America. He’s visiting half a dozen countries before he gets there.

No Excuses

These people are all real, and none of them are geniuses or million dollar entrepreneurs. They simply made the choice to make exploration a priority. As a result they were all able to quit their job and travel. Once you look at it from their perspective it’s easy to see that it’s really not that difficult. Places like Ukraine and Southeast Asia are absurdly cheap. I spent a month in Ukraine on $350 and a month in Vietnam on $500. That’s a month of living for the cost of a new television. Get out there and do it. Save some money, tell your boss you’ve had enough, and buy a ticket to somewhere you’ve dreamed of going.

The Three Best Hostels in Pai, Thailand

Pai is an awesome village to visit in Thailand. The scenery is great, it’s cheap, there’s plenty to do, and the area is beautiful. You can rent a scooter for a couple of dollars a day, or splurge and get a dirt bike for $15. There are dozens of restaurants to eat at, and the night market is something special. If you’re planning on making the trip to Pai you’ll want to find a great hostel, and that’s what we’ll look at in this article. These Pai hostels are all popular and they’re a great deal too.

1. Darling Hostel

A picture of Darling Hostel in Pai ThailandSituated on the outskirts of town, it takes about 10 minutes to reach Darling from the main street in Pai. Most people who stay here choose to rent scooters and the parking lot is often jammed with them. Darling offers a couple of nice features that make it a fun place to stay. Foremost it has an excellent view out over the whole town of Pai, and you can watch the sunset over the mountains. In the morning you can order breakfast, and it’s one of the few hostels in Thailand with decent coffee. There’s a pool that’s ice cold, plenty of deck chairs to relax on, and a communal fireplace that often gets lit at night.

The best accommodations at Darling hostel are the two and three bedroom private rooms. The dorms are reputed to be less comfortable. The WiFi works OK in the common area, but don’t expect to get any kind of decent coverage in your room. Darling is really the best fit if you want to stay somewhere quiet, and you’re travelling with someone and can split a private room. It’s a beautiful hostel and the atmosphere is excellent.

2. Circus Hostel

Pai Circus HostelCircus hostel is one of the most unique hostels in Pai, and in all of Thailand for that matter. The hostel is situated on a large hilltop and everything takes place outside. There’s a small pool, plenty of space to lay out a mat and tan, or do anything else for that matter. Next to the pool is an outdoor bar which opens around four and closes at midnight. By the bar is a popular pool table and a set of couches and chairs to hang out on. A short walk away is an outdoor eating area where you can bring food in to eat, or buy your own from the hostel. There are communal bathrooms and fire shows at night.

Living at Circus hostel is akin to high level camping. Half of the bathrooms don’t have hot water, and the rest are a decent walk away from the bungalows. Also, it has the worst WiFi in all of Southeast Asia. Even getting a connection to check your email is often impossible. That being said, it’s a fun hostel to stay at. Something is always happening, it’s very social, and there’s always someone to meet. Also, the private bungalows cost less than $10 a night, which makes this an ideal choice for anyone on a budget.

3. Purple Monkey

Purple MonkeyThe first two hostels Pai that I mentioned I’ve stayed at and can vouch for. The Purple Monkey I’ve never stayed at but I have heard good things about it from several other travelers. While Darling and Circus are both ideally suited for people travelling in groups, the Purple Monkey is a better fit if you plan on staying in a dorm. The beds are cheap and comfortable, and there’s a large communal space to meet people. With an outdoor bar and pool table you won’t be bored at night. There’s also a pool, but in the tradition of almost every hostel in Pai, it’s very small.

If you have the time you may want to consider staying at several different hostels. Each has its own unique flair and has plenty offer in the way of entertainment. Pai is a lovely place to stay, and with the difficulty of getting there it doesn’t really make sense to stay a few days and leave. And for anyone else that’s been to Pai and knows of other good hostels, leave a comment to let everyone else know about them!

The Bridge to Kreuzberg, Berlin – Germany

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The windows opened wide out over the streets of Berlin, and it would have been the perfect place to jump to our deaths. Another unique feature of our hostel was the lack of doors on the men’s room showers. This was interesting because it didn’t look like the showers were built without doors. Rather, it looked like someone had deliberately taken them off. Presumably this was to stop people from having sex, but the only thing it did for me was bring about a vague feeling of uneasiness. Public nudity is not something that Americans are designed to handle.

Downstairs on the ground floor there was a large lounge area with overpriced beer and a strict ban on outside alcohol. This hurt the wallet but the vibe was good. I found that Berlin attracts heaps of Russian tourists, and I got to speak Russian nearly every time I went downstairs.

Even though the hostel bar was cool, there was no way we were going to let that be the extent of our fun; Berlin is famous for having some of the best clubs in the worlds. Clubs with the longest and most intense parties that me and my sister were determined to check out. Friday night we got dressed up, took the elevator down, and started walking towards the club district on a beautiful night in August.

The Worst Cartographer

One of my reoccurring failures as a person is my inability to accurately estimate distances on Google Maps. What looks like 15 minutes on the phone screen often turns out to be 45 on the pavement. On that night I checked out the map and guessed the distance to be an easy jaunt. So we started walking towards Kreuzberg with the impression that we would be there in no more than half an hour.

It didn’t quite work out like that. After half an hour, when Irene asked me where we were, I refused to tell her. Once I zoomed out on the map it hardly looked like we had made any progress. When she asked me again at 45 minutes, all I could say for sure was that we were definitely, absolutely, without a doubt almost halfway there.

This might have not been so bad if it wasn’t for the area that we were walking in. Most of it was along a fairly dark street, and we were frequently the only people on the sidewalk for minutes at a time. We walked past cheap apartments and dive bars that looked like caves. They had great, gaping entrances that attracted like mosquitoes men who enjoyed leather and cigarettes. The city that had seemed so warm and inviting during the daytime seemed more oppressive under the moon.

After more than an hour of walking the atmosphere began to lighten, more people appeared on the streets, and in the distance we could see the bridge that we needed to cross to get into Kreuzberg. Such joy, such relief to have the end in sight!

Drinking Beer on the Bridge

While living in a hostel in Kiev, a guy named Chris had told me that we had to visit Watergate. Me and Irene checked it out online and it seemed like we would be able to get in (as compared to other Berlin clubs, which are notorious for their door policies). Unfortunately, when we got to the door we found out that Watergate wouldn’t open till midnight. Disappointing, if not totally unexpected. Berlin’s club are known for staying open well past sunrise. We had plans for the next day though and staying out till four just wasn’t going to happen.

So we walked down the street through the heart of Kreuzberg. The sidewalks, cafes, and bars were packed with people. Most of them young, speaking German, and glued together in large groups. A few blocks away from Watergate we found a liquor store and bought a couple of beers. I think it’s amazing that you can drink in public in Germany. While you can do the same in Russia, it’s technically illegal and if a cop is bored he can give you hell for it. In Germany though you don’t have to watch out for cops and you can enjoy your beer just about any place you like.

Failing to find any other interesting club or bar, we gently drank our beers and walked back in the direction we came. To get into Kreuzberg you have to cross a fairly long bridge and this is where we ended up. The bridge is intriguing and mysterious in that it looks like something straight out of Hogwarts. It’s decorated with arches and a large covered sidewalk runs the length of it. Walking towards the middle we passed a DJ with a portable speaker and turntable, a man playing guitar, and dozens of kids sitting on the concrete, drinking beer and smoking dope.

Directly in the center of the bridge we stopped and leaned against the railing. The water flowed quietly below us. Even though we hadn’t been able to get into Watergate, the experience still felt special. All the people around us were young and in high spirits. The freedom to drink in public resulted in an electric outdoor atmosphere where everyone was happy, and nobody was worried about being hassled by the police. We watched some people dancing off to our right, and I thought about how I wished I could have come here when I was in high school.

Spontaneous Greetings

Ten minutes later the highlight of my time in Berlin came floating down the river. It was a midnight sightseeing ferry and the upper deck was battened down with people. As the ferry approached the bridge, more of the young crowd took notice and began to line up at the edges of the bridge. As soon as the river passengers were within a baseball’s throw, everyone began to whistle, smile and wave, as if the people below were leaving on a great ocean voyage to another continent.

We didn’t know them, they didn’t know us, and yet we all waved. Everyone was happy. We were all out in Berlin, enjoying a beautiful night and a good life. This exchange with the ferry people below had such a deep impact on me because it felt like a shot of happiness and optimism straight into my veins. I had only gotten free of the Russian culture a week ago, and I was quiet aware that this is the type of thing that would never happen in Eastern Europe. Spontaneous outbursts of joy are frowned upon and discouraged. I was happy to be free of that and in a place where we were free to celebrate life as we saw fit.

Hardly had the other boat disappeared down the river before another one came in its wake. This continued for ten minutes, and we cheered and waved to each new group of people passing underneath us. What an incredible sight! Before that night I had liked Germany. After that I loved it.

This vivid experience of Berlin has stuck with me, and it’s been a contributing force in my wish to return to that beautiful city. As I study German and speak with my German friends, I’m continually preparing for that day when I’ll go back, and find a whole new side of Berlin to fall in love with.

Going to Mr. Peace’s in Dalat – Vietnam

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After two and a half weeks in Nha Trang I was ready for something new. Even though my hostel offered free beer at happy hour, and I had some cool friends, it was time for a change of scenery. At this point I had only been to three or four cities in South East Asia and I was looking forward to seeing more.

Street FoodOn my last day I hung out with my friends and we went out for some delicious street food. One of the things that make Vietnam unique is the proliferation of street food restaurants. They appear on sidewalks at frequent intervals, the way there’s a Starbucks on every corner in Manhattan. At these restaurants you can sit on dainty chairs and eat from a table that’s hardly more than a foot off the ground. As we were leaving our restaurant I saw a group of British girls approaching, being led by a guide from their hostel. I felt happy, and a little bit smug, that I was able to experience this with my Vietnamese friends and not have to rely on a guide. After dinner I said goodbye to my friends and went back to the hostel to pack up my bag. The next day, coming back to the hostel after lunch, I nearly missed my bus. In Asia I’ve found that buses are on time as often as there isn’t a murder in NYC for 2 weeks. Never. Most times they’re either twenty minutes late or ten minutes early.

At the last second I got a seat on the bus, distributed crumbs all over from the crumbly bread of my sandwich, and wished that I had chosen to sit on the other side of the bus that wasn’t sun scorched.

A Ride Through the Mountains

The bus ride was a wonderful experience. We drove through dense swaths of jungle, and I imagined what my countryman must have felt like navigating through this terrain half a century ago. Unfortunately, the ride got less enjoyable as the the roads began to unravel into a series of sharp turns and switchbacks.

This didn’t sit well with me.

For some unknown reason I feel right at home in eight foot chop in a fishing boat only a few feet longer than a BMW 7 Series. Going around turns in a cramped bus with sets designed for an Asian grandma, that gets me every time. And it seems to be a fairly unique problem. I talked to a quartet of Swedish girls, and a Vietnamese NGO worker, who said the ride didn’t upset them anymore than losing a dollar would to Kanye West.

By the time we reached Dalat I had two strong feelings. First, I felt thrilled that I had arrived and I wouldn’t have to deal with any more nauseating roads. My second thought  was that this was the most downtrodden, tough looking town that I’d seen in a long, long time. I thanked the world at large that I wasn’t born there, strapped my bag to my back, and took off. With the ignorant optimism of youth I decided to try to find my hostel without using the map on my phone. Lost within three minutes, and I managed to turn a ten minute walk into a forty-five minutes. Then I found what I was looking for. The hostel was named Mr. Peace, and the owner went by the same name.

Meeting the Legend

Mr PeaceOne has to imagine that the hostel was named ironically, because Mr. Peace (the guy in the striped shirt) was the least peaceful person that I ever met in an Asian country. Tall and skinny, he dressed like a gay Manhattan hairdresser who spends $40,000 a year on clothes. He greeted me with a hug, which I wasn’t prepared for, and then delivered me to reception before floating off to another part of the building.

In the coming days I would find out several interesting facts about Mr. Peace. The first is that his favorite word is “motherfucking bitch”, and that’s supplemented by a fairly impressive knowledge of equally unprintable English words. He would frequently run through dregs of he English language, to the delight of his twenty-something, hungover guests.

Another one of his personality quirks was his unusual belief that groping people is an acceptable form of entertainment. While an assault on decency, it was softened by his uncanny habit of grabbing both guys and girls, and his eccentric personality which seemed to justify his actions. I’ve probably made him sound like a monster, and I’m sure that plenty of people came to hate him over the years. But where there  is hate there is also love, and many of the guests adored him. I can’t say that I enjoyed being grabbed when I least suspected it, but if I ever go back to Dalat, I wouldn’t consider staying anywhere else.

Mr. Peace wasn’t who I was most in concerned with in Dalat though. Even though he was one of the last truly eccentric and unforgiving people left on this planet, there was someone else who I was more interested in. She came in twenty minutes after I moved into my room, and I knew right away that I wanted to talk to her.

What’s That Strange Noise?

I was writing an article for a client when Joanna came in. First impression: Damn! That’s a cute girl! Tall, blonde and skinny. She was carrying a bag that looked like it weighed more than she did. I knew that I had to talk to her but with a bunch of other British girls in the room, I wanted to wait to make sure that they wouldn’t join in the conversation as well.

I continued to work and Joanna called somebody back at home. I listened to a conversation that I didn’t understand, punctuated by throaty, gravelly H sounds. Culturally ignorant, I was convinced that she was speaking Afrikaans. I’ve met some people from South Africa, and while they all speak English, I’ve always assumed that some speak a second language.

Her conversation wound down, the British girls left, and when I told Joanna that I thought she was speaking Afrikaans and she rightfully made fun of me. American’s ignorance of other cultures is legendary amongst the infinitely more international Europeans. It turned out to be Dutch, and I got to learn about the distant lingual cousin of German.

Me and JoannaThat night we went to 100 Roof’s Cafe, which turned out to be the most interesting cafe I’ve ever been to in my life. Even though we went there as a group of nearly a dozen, I spent most the night alone with Joanna. By the end of it I knew that not only was Joanna attractive, she was a blast to hang out with too. I felt elated about all of the choices that I had made leading up to this point. If I had left Nha Trang when I had originally planned to I never would have met Joanna, and my entire experience in Asia would have been less enjoyable as a result.

I think about that often. The odd chance that we happened to come together during those few short days in Dalat. It would have been so easy to have missed her in my spontaneous travels from city to city.

We only had a day or two at Mr. Peace’s before I packed up my bag and took the bus to Mui Ne. After the worst bus trip of my life, I rode on the back of a scooter taxi to my new hostel. In my new dorm I met up with a few people that I new from another city in Vietnam, and I got drunk under the table by two Dutch guys who were both named Tim. I had a hangover the next day when Joanna showed up, but I still had the good sense to jump off my bed for a huge. We spent nearly five months travelling through Asia after that, and it was a defining experience in my life. It’s funny to look back and see that it was all made possible by a chance visit to Mr Peace, the most wildly eccentric hostel owner in all of Vietnam.

Going to the Dubai Mall – The UAE

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There was only one reason that I wanted to visit Dubai: the Burj Khalifa. I didn’t know much about Dubai except that it was very modern and very wealthy. This idea was reaffirmed when I arrived at the airport and my taxi was a brand new Lexus. It was only slightly shorter than an aircraft carrier, and so padded, quiet, and comfortable that it felt sterile and detached from the world. Like being inside a hospital operating room. I was reminded of the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has said that luxury cars separate the driver from the experience of driving. Indeed, I felt like I was floating along the road, instead of driving on it.

As we got closer, my driver kept asking me which hotel I was going to. I valiantly tried to explain that I was going to a hostel, not a hotel. My efforts were in vain. He didn’t seem to know the word hostel, and all of my attempts to explain it to him crashed and burned.

“It’s a place with lots of young people in a room. Lot’s of foreigners living in the same apartment. Do you know what dorms are? Like that.”

“This place has both men and women living together?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“This is not a good place to go.”

The last five minutes of the ride passed in silence, as I wondered what kind of place I had come to.

Arriving at the address, I was disconcerted to find that we were in a back alley behind some residential apartments. It was 2:30am, everything was dark, and there were no signs for my hostel. I didn’t have a telephone to make a call, nor could I get online to find out which building it was. I wondered aimlessly up to the first door I saw and tried opening it. It was locked. Even if it was open I wouldn’t have gone inside, I knew that it wasn’t going to take me to the hostel. I felt scared, and discouraged. I felt like I shouldn’t have come.

I went back to my driver and I put myself at his mercy.

“I don’t know where it is” I said. “Can you maybe call them?”

“This is bad, you should not be here” he said sternly, before making the call. He spoke into the telephone gruffly, with heavily accented English, and then hung up after twenty seconds.

“Come on” he said, grabbing my bag from the trunk. We walked around a building, through an open entrance, and he pressed the button for the elevator. “Give me 30 Dirham” he said, as we watched the number counter on the elevator move from three, to two, to one. I gave him 50 and he didn’t make a pretense of looking for change.

We took the elevator to the third floor and walked down the hall to the right. Standing in the doorway, holding open the beige colored door, was a sleepy looking girl who didn’t look like she could be a year over twenty. My taxi driver, assuming the role of a legal guardian for an underage teenager, asked if I was in the right place. She nodded and said yes, as if this had all happened before and it was nothing out of the ordinary. My driver gave me my bag and walked back to the elevator. I called out a thank you to his retreating back and received no acknowledgement. I felt a wave of relief to have arrived at the hostel without any serious trouble. I had a comfortable bed to sleep in, the girl was from Belarus so I had a chance to speak Russian, and most important, I had a ticket to take a ride to the top of the Burj Khalifa.

The Flat and the Tall

The city planners of Dubai seemed to be acutely aware of what the focal points of the city are, and the metro had a designated stop for the Burj Khalifa. Being inexperienced at riding the metro in a Muslim country, I nearly stepped onto the female section of the train by accident. I was quickly shooed away, and I slipped into the guy’s section just as the door was closing.

Riding the metro in Dubai will give you a good idea about who lives in the city. In 2013, about 84% of the population was made up of expats. In Dubai, these expats include a wide range of people. Lots of East Asian construction and dock workers, along with a smaller percentage of white collar, Western expats. The result is that even though I was obviously a foreigner, I didn’t feel as though I stuck out in any meaningful way. Another blogger summarized it best when he said: “Everywhere I go in Asia, people ask me where I’m from. In Dubai, they ask me how long I’ve lived there.

Half a dozen stops away from the hostel I got off the metro. Then I began the quarter mile walk from the train station to the entrance of the Dubai mall. The entire walk was through an air conditioned tunnel that you could drive a SUV through. As I approached the entrance to the mall the first shops began to appear. They were selling tourist gear, scarves, tea, and expensive coffee.

A picture of multiple floors at the Dubai mallMoments later, I suddenly found myself standing in one of the main halls of the Dubai Mall, looking out over a vast expanse of space that covered multiple floors. It was larger than I had imagined and it seemed to stretch forward into eternity. I leaned against the railing, peered down at the people walking below me, and marveled at its size. To give you some idea of how large the mall is, I think it would be interesting to mention a few statistics. Measured by total area, it’s the largest mall in the world. Laid flat, it would cover fifty (European) football fields. It’s home to more than 1,200 shops, and in 2011 it was the most visited building on the entire planet. In 2012, with more than 57 million visitors, it was a larger tourist destination than New York City.

Of course I didn’t know any of this when I walked into it. I only knew that it was a big mall, that somewhere it held the entrance to the Burj Khalifa, and I had no idea where it was. Three floors and two wrong turns later I got it. I retrieved my ticket, went through security, and took the ludicrously fast elevator straight to the top. Why then is this the story of the Dubai Mall, and not the story of the Burj Khalifa? I was surprised at the answer myself.

At the end of the day, when I looked back at the two buildings, it was the mall that made a larger impression on me. Even though the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, it didn’t feel all that much more impressive than being at the top of other tall skyscrapers, like the CN Tower. On the other hand, the Dubai Mall was exponentially larger than any other building that I’ve ever been in, and I was struck by its fantastic proportions. So it was that after only twenty minutes at the top of the Burj Khalifa I was already looking forward to taking the elevator back down, and continuing my exploration of the Dubai Mall.

Of Sharks and Men

A picture of the fashion hall in the Dubai MallI set no goal for myself and wandered at random. Directly after leaving the Burj Khalifa, the first area I found was fashion square. A massive circular hall with enough room in the middle for a tennis court. Running around the ring, in two stories, were all of the luxury clothing shops that you’d expect a stock broker’s wife to be familiar with. Running out of fashion hall was fashion avenue. An area with plush, padded sofas and decorations so decadent that they made me feel small and insignificant. The Arabic area, styled on traditional Arabic design and desert lifestyle, was tasteful and imbued with a subtle look of jubilant wealth.

Several minutes later I tried to take a selfie in front of the shark tank but I failed. My camera did a terrible job of capturing the sharks and stingrays gliding through the water several feet behind me. I watched the tank for a minute, then walked off to find somewhere to relax. I bought a coffee and a cookie, then sat down and listened to the noise coming from the full sized hockey rink fifty feet away. A surreal experience, made more vivid by a brilliant cup of coffee. With gusto I left my seat and walked down to the third story, to see a movie in the theater.

Fifty Shades of Change

Even though I didn’t buy anything but a cookie, a coffee, and a cheap ticket to the movie theater, I look back fondly on the Dubai Mall. The whole building was remarkably well done and wonderfully impressive. What struck me the most was the way the mall seemed to mimic a chameleon, constantly changing colors. I walked from decadent fashion avenue, done in a vaguely Italian style, to a modern Pop flavored area with stores for people under thirty. Then through shiny tech zone and into the traditional Arabic, multi-floor area.

The mall was so large that it felt like it could support its own climate. An astonishing place that stands ready to impress even the most jaded. Even though I loved the experience, if I go back to Dubai I don’t know if I’ll return to the mall. I think that a great part of my enjoyment was the novelty of the experience. It’s like moving into a new house. When you take those first steps inside you’re living in a world of pure possibility. You explore the rooms and discover new surprises. Then, just a day later, everything is known and it becomes a regular part of your existence.

The strongest memories come from those first steps, just as you’re walking in and you have no idea what to expect. As you step over the threshold you stop for a second and smile, as you realize how amazing it’s going to be.

Riding a Quad in Mui Ne – Vietnam

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The great thing about this story is that it exists not only the page, but as a video as well. You can watch that video at the bottom of this post, but I suggest you read the story first. It starts like this. Me and Joanna had been together in Mui Ne for a few days and we were just starting to get to know each other. Looking for things to do, we’d heard that you could rent a quad and take it out onto the dunes.

If you’ve been to Mui Ne then you’ll know that massive dunes surround the entire beach side town. I took a bus from Dalat to Mui Ne, and it was a hell of an experience to come down from the mountains, towards the ocean, and watch the lush vegetation turn into sprawling dunes. A few days later at our hostel, three of my friends showed us pictures of them riding quads on the sunset red sand, and me and Joanna obviously wanted to do the same.

The next day we rented scooters at $4 a piece, filled them up with petrol, and started driving out towards the dunes. The roads in Mui Ne are surprisingly well paved for Asia and we made quick time. Scooters weigh less than the average McDonald’s patron and they zip around with surprising speed. It was a half hour ride to the dune, and I did it without a shirt on. A model of responsibility I am not.

Choosing Our Ride

Bronzed by half an hour in the sun, we arrive and park our scooters in the shade. Walking up to a line of quads parked under a line of palm trees, we find out there’s two choices. Nearer to us are the older, beat up quads. They have a smaller engine, and the real problem is that they have bald tires. I’ve read at least a dozen reviews online from people who’ve said that they got stuck in the sand and it ruined their experience.

Raptor QuadParked in front of the old-folks quads, are a line of beautiful new Raptors. Gnarly, knobby tires. Fresh blue paint and aggressive styling, they look like the type of toys that I used to dream about driving when I was a kid. The choice is easy. We pay $50 for half an hour, choose the nicest looking one of the bunch, and start the drive out onto the dunes. After riding a tiny scooter the quad feels ludicrously heavy and hard to control. They’re reputed to have a top speed of 90mph, which would be terrifying and suicidal to test out on the dunes.

The only other time that I’ve gotten to ride a quad for more than a few minutes was with my friend Jessee in high school. We’d push the 400cc engine to its redline, and do circle burnouts on the gravel until the engine overheated and we had to shut it down. Teenagers throwing no caution to the wind, relying on their underdeveloped brain to make decisions. I’d like to say I’ve learned something since then. Have I though?

The Flying Circus

I started driving the Raptor with some degree of restraint. That disappeared within two minutes. Feeling like the king of the dunes, I gun the throttle, make quick turns, and leave a long trail of crisscrossing tracks on the sand. There’s a jeep weighed down with tourists driving nearby. I do my best to make them jealous, even though the quad is only ours for half an hour and I have no clue what I’m doing. The masculine attitude: if it has an engine I can drive it.

Cresting up on top of a small dune I see a large gully in front of us. Past the dip is a large, bland hill that looks easily conquerable. Going into the dip I accelerate, letting the ponies run free. Unfortunately, the hill that looked bland and unimpressive from a distance turns out to be significantly steeper in person. As we climb up it the we can feel the weight shift to the back of the quad. Less and less pressure on the front tires. Every foot we climb we feel like there’s a 2% greater chance we’re going to flip over. The front wheels feel light as a feather and my heart is pounding in my chest. An inexperienced driver, I’m still positive that you don’t want to flip one over on a steep hill.

On the back Joanna is screaming at me to turn around. I listen to her, and use the last bit of traction to turn us back down the hill. We start down, and before I can consciously register a blink we’re flying off the quad, tumbling over the sand dunes, the quad shooting off to the right on its own momentum. I inadvertently steered us straight into a field of undulating waves in the sand, each six inches high, and we hit them with such violence that we were instantly chucked off of the quad and straight into the sand.

As I gain my footing, the first thing Joanna does isn’t to yell at me for being a dim witted, heavy footed fleshy wad of retarded testosterone. Instead, she asks if I’m alright. Immediately I like her even  more than before. A month later when I crash a dirt bike she’ll do the same thing, and I think it’s one of her great endearing qualities. I like to take risks, but the catch is that the risks are often times where the fun lies. Sometimes you get stung, and it was awesome to be with a girl who understood that as well, and took my stuntman approach to life in stride.

The Asian Approach to Safety

For me, the scariest part of our half hour with the Raptor wasn’t getting chucked like rag dolls. The experience that really made me think happened several minutes later. Sobered by the crash, I was driving carefully up the side of another, gentler dune. Coming up on the crest we couldn’t see what was on the other side so I took it slow. Reaching the top, we saw that the opposite side of the dune was impossibly steep, and it went directly into a lake. If I had taken the crest too fast I would have been unable to stop, or change directions, and we would have driven straight into the lake.

This is a good parable for the Asian approach to safety. It’s a fairly lawless place where you have to look after yourself. In America there would have been signs, or a fence, to stop reckless drivers from taking their quad swimming. In Asia, I didn’t even know how close I was to ruining our day until I was six inches away from the edge.

Asia is a wonderful place to let loose and not worry about the law interfering. The flip side is that you have to look out for yourself. You’re not in America anymore. Everything is not idiot proof, the country has not been wrapped in bubble rap and you don’t have to wear a helmet. Some thought is required. Such is Asia, such is fun.

Skip to 1:45 in the video to watch the fireworks.