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Airbnb vs. Hostels, Which is Better?

Hostels have been around forever, my parents call them Youth Hostels which I think is adorable. Airbnb on the other hand is the newer option. While it definitely has some solid benefits, I think that it’s popularity is a bit over-hyped. So in this short article I’m going to look at the benefits and drawbacks of staying at a hostel or Airbnb, so that it’s easier to make the best decision.

Benefits of Hostels

-It’s so easy to meet people. If you stay in a dorm you’ll probably meet some of the people you’re staying with. And even if you don’t, you can just go to the common area and see what’s happening.

-Dorms are the cheapest option and can make travelling on a budget doable.

-Hostels often have cool benefits like cheap happy hours, free breakfast, free entry to clubs, free walking tours, and other discounts.

Benefits of Airbnb

-You get your own room and you don’t have to worry about a drunk Spanish guy coming in at 3am and aggressively rolling his Rrrrrrsss. This is great if you want to get some solid sleep, or if you’re travelling with someone and you can split the cost of the room.

-If you have the cash and you want to splurge you can rent an entire apartment for a few days. This is something that was difficult to do before Airbnb, especially in a foreign city where you don’t speak the language.

-If you rent a room you’ll get to meet someone who will probably have some good advice about the city.

Drawbacks of Hostels

-Sleeping in a 8 or 10 bed dorm is precarious. Even with ear plugs in you still may be woken up.

-You have to keep track of all your stuff and possibly pay for a locker. If you’re worried about theft, hostels aren’t that secure. That being said, I’ve spent 6 months of my life living in hostels and never had anything but a pair of socks stolen.

-Sometimes the WiFi is crap, especially in South East Asia. Not a big deal if you’re writing emails, definitely a big deal when you’re trying to get work done.

Drawbacks of Airbnb

-It’s expensive! You’ll often end up paying a premium price to get that room for a few days. This is true of longer rentals too. You’ll end up paying plenty more than a roommate normally would.

-Not nearly as easy to meet local people.

-Limited check in times. You can arrive at a hostel at the funniest hours, it doesn’t usually matter. Showing up to your Airbnb at 1am may not be cool.

What’s the Best Choice?

I only use Airbnb are when I’m going to be staying somewhere for more than a week. When that happens it’s nice to have a room where you can leave your stuff laying around. It’s worth the extra money, especially if you’re travelling with someone.

Most of the time though, hostels! They’re fun, they’re social, and they’re cheap. Many of them also have private rooms if you want to pay for them. Regardless of where you choose to stay, make travel a priority. Check out the hostels and Airbnb rooms in your favorite city, make a booking, and start an awesome adventure today.

All About Copenhagen (With Pictures)

Ernest Hemingway had Paris. I have Copenhagen. If I ever want to retreat somewhere to write, or ponder, or pursue enlightenment, I’ll come to Copenhagen. I’ve never been anywhere like it. I have yet to walk along a road that doesn’t have a bike lane on either side. Nor have I paid less than $3 for anything. The whole country works brilliantly, and charges you for the convenience. An amazing building in CopenhagenDanish prices make New York seem thrifty. But hey, I’ve got the cash, so why not splurge. Copenhagen is beautiful, stunning, and it’s the greenest, most well taken care of city that I’ve ever been to in my life.

And yet…

Copenhagen is where I’ll come one day to write a book, it’s not where I want to spend my twenties. It’s where I’d like to raise a kid, not celebrate my forthcoming, semi-midlife crisis. There’s not enough adrenaline here for me. When I’m in Copenhagen I don’t feel the intense energy that enlivens New York. Nor do I smell garbage or hear the honking of one million pissed off taxi drivers. So while it might not be perfect, there are definitely some big advantages of living in this coastal city. Here are a few of the things that I enjoy the most.

The Bike Lanes

A bike parking lot in CopenhagenThe Danes love to ride their bikes. 50% of people in Copenhagen commute to work by bicycle, and that figure includes members of the Danish parliament, and their sharply dressed secretaries. Internet statistics tell me that there are more bikes than people in Copenhagen, which makes sense when you see a picture like this one. Forget about parking lots for oversized Americans to park their oversized SUV’s. A small amount of sidewalk can hold a massive number of bicycles, which is a far more efficient use of space.

I’ve walked 10 or 15 km in the last two days, and I’ve failed to find a single road of any respectable size that doesn’t have a bike lane running along it. Bikers have their own designated lanes, separate from pedestrians and cars. It’s brilliant! Why sit in traffic when you can zoom past and get your daily exercise. Which leads us to…

The Incredibly Fit People

Come to downtown Copenhagen and find me three overweight people in less than five minutes. I’ll wager $10 you can’t do it. If we changed overweight to obese, I would wager $1,000 you can’t do it. Go to any American city and I wouldn’t wager a dime even if you only had 30 seconds.

The Danish are very fit people. I don’t know whether it’s the diet or all the bike riding, but it’s very rare to see someone who is genuinely out of shape. What a breathe of fresh air. Where I come from having a belly and a cabinet full of blood pressure medicine is the norm. I love seeing that other countries are different. Which reminds me of…

The Parks

A cool old building in CopenhagenCopenhagen doesn’t have parks, it has lush, well maintained gardens of glory. They’re beautiful, perfectly manicured, and I love them. When you get lost in a Copenhagen park it’s easy to forget that you’re downtown in a nation’s capital. Leaves soak up the noise, and rows of trimmed hedges promote a feeling of seclusion.

Today I sat in the SMK art museum, staring out of massive glass windows at a beautiful pond surrounded by trees. As Copenhagen grew up incredible care was taken to preserve the natural feel of the area, and that shows through to this day. Central Park in Manhattan is amazing, but it feels forced. A shock transition from steel and concrete to grass and dirt. The parks in Copenhagen blend in with the city and compliment the natural order.

The Upkeep

The Dane’s sacrifice about 40% of their salary to taxes, but they get a lot in return. The roads are in great condition, especially compared to the acne-pocked abominations we have the US. The trains are quiet and the WiFi works great. The bike lanes are paved smooth and in excellent repair. The parks are perfectly mowed, the gardens weeded, the bushes and trees, trimmed and pruned. There’s rarely an overflowing garbage bin, and trash on the streets is the exception not the rule. Everything obviously receives a lot of love and positive attention. New York is a lot cleaner today than it was 20 years ago, but it has a light-year step to even be in the same ballpark as Copenhagen.

The Open Culture

A communal apartment in CopenhagenWhen people rides scooters (Asia) or bikes (Denmark), it’s an open experience. You’re not hidden behind tons of metal and glass, encapsulated in a bubble of polyester and talk radio. You’re out there for the world to see, and you can see it right back. In Copenhagen I’ve noticed that it goes even further, as there are many outdoor cafes and even the smallest places usually have one or two tables with two or four chairs directly on the narrow sidewalk. In America nobody would sit there, they would feel to exposed to the eyes of strangers. Here, people take advantage of those seats all the time.

I think this open way of living is an overlooked aspect of what makes Danes so happy. Humans for hundreds of thousands of years lived in a social group where nobody could hide much from anyone else. Now, with the invention of fences and cars, it’s possible to block out your neighbor from existence. But just because you can, does that mean that you should?

The Conclusion

These are the reasons that one day I’d like to come to Copenhagen, answer no email for a month, and just write. It’s a beautiful city to exist in. However, while I’m focused on massive personal growth and pushing the envelope, I know that Copenhagen isn’t the best choice. Too tame and restrained. Wonderful for raising a child, but not a 24 year old aspiring success story. So I’ll leave Copenhagen tomorrow and I will miss it a lot more than I expected to. But I’ll know that this gem will always be waiting for me. Once I’ve gotten the crazy out of my system I’ll be ready to learn more about the culture, and find out exactly why the Danes are considered among the earth’s happiest people.

The 10 Commandments of Hostel Living

I see people break these common sense rules all the time (looking at you Americans!) and it really sucks because it makes everyone’s experience worse. If you’re staying in a dorm you know what you’re getting yourself into, but it’s still disappointing when people aren’t courteous. So with that in mind, here are 10 things that I wish everyone would keep in mind when they stay in a hostel.

Though Shall Not…

1. Come in late and turn the light on

Seriously, this is a no-brainer right? It’s a dorm for people to sleep in, don’t come in at midnight and turn on the large overhead light. I know you just arrived, but use your cellphone or unpack your shit in the hall.

2. Leave your cellphone on

If you’re holding your cellphone in your sausage-link fingers, do you really need a noise to alert you every time you get a new text from your mom?

3. Have a conversation in the middle of the night

I don’t care what language it’s in, having a conversation at 1am in a dorm is not cool.

4. Hook up with people

If you’re planning on having lots of hot hostel sex, get a private. Or use the shower. Nobody wants to wake up at 2am because the person on the bunk underneath them is trying to spawn a new human.

5. Slam the door

Sometimes I think people are retarded. Or they just don’t care? If you come in at 3am and everyone is sleeping, I’ll bet you can find a way to not close the door with the strength of an Olympic athlete.

6. Eat in bed

It’s got to be the Americans right? Who else brings a sandwich and a bag of chips into bed?

7. Snore

I get it, you can’t control it. This is wishful thinking, but I’ll continue to dream.

8. Do this

Bed MonsterSo you’ve studied carpentry and you have a keen interest in the disassembly of beds, that’s swell. I’d be grateful if you could find other constructive outlets to keep you busy though.

9. Get hammered, shitfaced, wasted, pissed, drunk-off-your-ass

If you can do 15 shots of Captain Morgan and still find your way to your bed, more power to you. Some people simply aren’t designed to handle alcohol though, and if you can’t even find your bed that’s a good sign you’ve had too much.

Though Shall….

10. Break every single one of these rules

Seriously, it’s a hostel. People know what to expect when they choose the dorm option. Buy earplugs, listen to music, or get a private room if you can’t deal. Communal living has lots of drawbacks and your sleep schedule tends to suffer, but it’s also really fun. It’s easy to meet people, it’s cheap, and it’s usually a good time. I’ve met lots of awesome friends at hostels and I wouldn’t trade all the missed sleep in the world for that. Check out what the folks at Hostelworld are offering in your favorite city!

Visiting Friends in Denmark

I didn’t have a good picture of Denmark before arriving. I was surprised then that it looks like my mental idea of England. Semi-manicured lawns, houses from a fairy-tale illustration, roads that look funny for unknown reasons. Maybe they’re in too good of repair. Obviously Denmark is a country that receives lots of love. Most things appear to be in their place and law and order (or social norms) ensure an easy atmosphere. Which is why I thought it would be interesting to compare it to another country that I’ve actually spent more than 48 hours in.

You can get a ticket for walking on the wrong side of the road in Denmark. On the highway in Russia you can drive on the shoulder of the road at suspension-busting speeds. In Denmark the trains are so quiet you can hear two men talking in hushed voices across the aisle. In Russia you can hold the outer doors of the train open to get a breeze, or just for the hell of it. In Denmark most people speak English like they grew up in a part of Canada that I’ve never been too. In Russia you never doubt whom you’re talking to.

The comparisons go on, but the conclusion is the same. Neither country is for me. Life in Russia is too chaotic and dark, but Denmark is too tame and restrained. That being said, my friend Asger is in love with Denmark. He says that although he’s going to continue to travel, he’ll always be a Dane at heart. I spent two days with him at his home in Middelfart. An unfortunate name in English, but I’ve learned that in Danish “fart” means speed.

It’s a hell of a town. Sort of like where I grew up, if only everything was beautiful, expensive, and people drove small cars instead of pickups. The town cascades into a beautiful lake, and Asger’s dream is to live in one of the million-dollar-view homes that overlooks the water. That the cost of the home will almost match the value of the view doesn’t seem to faze him. “Denmark is a very expensive country, but our wages are very good”, I’ve been told. One dollar is 6.65 Kroner, which seems simple enough but when you’re in a store the math doesn’t come naturally.

One thing I have done the math on is $50 for a two hour train ride. It’s the nicest train I’ve ever been on in my life, but $25 an hour seems awfully high. When I went to Obirek in Ukraine, I paid $4 for a three hour train ride. The men who sat in between the train cars and bribed the ticket collector paid less than $1.

Making International Friends

Working on a train in DenmarkThe story of how I ended up in Asger’s living room in a small Danish town that I’d never heard of is a good one. Joanna had met him on the message board 4chan, although she’d never seen him in real life. She invited him to meet up with us in Bangkok and he agreed. After a few days in that polluted town we took a bus to Pai, rented motorcycles and had a blast. At our parting he offered an invitation to his place in Denmark. It took me six months but I made it. I’m thrilled to be here, regardless of how much the train ticket costs. It’s awesome to have friends in a country to help explain the culture and lifestyle.

So even though I’ve discovered that Denmark isn’t a country where I want to spend my life, it’s still a great experience. The more places that I go, the more confident I feel in decreeing which countries and cultures I like the best. I’ll end with that. Writing these words on a train, going through beautiful countryside, using WiFi that doesn’t cut out every five minutes. Although Denmark might not be right for me, it sure is a hell of a country.

Travelling is Cheaper Than Anyone Will Tell You

A lot of people that I’ve met have unrealistic ideas about what it costs to travel. They often think that they need $5,000 to $10,000 in the bank before they can go, even though nothing can be farther from the truth. If you’re on a budget, you can find ways to travel for way less than people tell you.

One problem is that when you see an estimate of what it costs to visit a city, that estimate is often much higher than the real cost. It may include guided tours, fancy dinners, or lodging at a hotel instead of a hostel. Screw all that. If you’re on a budget you don’t need any of it. You can live so cheap and still get a full experience.

Take Berlin for example. The Lonely Planet guide says you’ll need up to 100 Euros per day to get by. That’s crap! I know, I was there, and I did it for a lot less. Let’s break it down.

Hostel: 20 Euros a night (for a nice hostel, there are cheaper ones)
Breakfast: 4 Euro all you can eat breakfast at the hostel
Lunch: fresh air and sunshine
Dinner: 10 Euros for a sandwich or doner or bratwurst
Metro: 7 Euros for an all day pass
Other random expenses: 10 Euros

That’s only 51 Euros a day. And if you were being really tight, you could get it down to 40 and still have an awesome time. Every city has parks, memorials, beaches, museums, and lots of other awesome things to do that don’t cost a dime. Hell, the Metro in Kiev costs about $0.10 for a ride. Now that’s a deal!

Granted this assumes you won’t want to try German beer or eat somewhere cool, but still. If it’s the choice between seeing the city or not seeing it, I’d always rather visit it and live a spartan existence, versus only see the pictures that someone else has taken.

How Much Money Do You Need?

Probably a lot less than you think. Once you get somewhere you will find a way to make it happen. Maybe you’ll volunteer at a hostel, volunteer through Workaway, start working online, teach English, or whatever else. If you have the drive and you’re willing to do what other people aren’t, there is a way. In my own case, I would do the following…

Go to South East Asia with $500
Go to Ukraine with $700
Go to the cheaper European countries with $1,000
Go to an expensive European country with $1,500

Those are just starting amounts. I would work online to keep the bank account alive, or volunteer at a hostel to make the money last a while. While I can’t say this is the ideal amount of money to have, if it’s the difference between going and not going, I promise you it’s always better to go. At one point I was down to $0.47 in Bangkok. I had less than $5 in my bank account, not even enough to cover the ATM withdrawal fee. Was it scary? Sure. Was it optimal? Hell no. Did I learn from it? You bet I did.

So go out there and do it! Save some money, buy the airplane ticket, and whenever you read somewhere what it’s going to cost to visit a city, cut that amount in half and you’ll be fine. The world is waiting…

Guest Post: Singapore, A Place to Love

This is a guest post from the awesome David Press-Dawson (Check out his Instagram here), who I met in Singapore for three brief days. We had an awesome time, and he has an awesome passion for the minuscule country. With that in mind I asked if he wanted to write a guest post, and he delivered in a big way. This is a fantastic post that does a great job of explaining the city to anyone who has never been there. Enjoy!

“I met Sam while I was managing a small hostel in Singapore. We became friends after a short conversation and toast. I can’t be totally sure, but I think Sam ate six pieces of peanut butter toast during our initial talk. The man likes his toast.”

I will start this by saying, I am not impartial, nor am I going to be my cold logical self. I’m biased as f–k. I love Singapore. I love Singapore so much I have visited it three times over the last three years, totaling six months of actual time spent in the country. I have chosen to be in Singapore over the nearby countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. I am not saying you should not visit those other countries, nor am I saying Singapore is better than those countries, but I am saying Singapore is amazing and worth your time and money.

Singapore, a White man’s door to Asia

A picture of the Mall in Singapore

The only mall I’ve ever been in that has canals in it!

Asia is a vast and unknown place for most people, especially White people. Most people can summon a few stereotypical things about Asia, but that’s about it. You might hear about the dog eating in South Korea, or the used panty machines in Japan, or the squat toilets of China, and you might think to yourself, “I don’t want anything to do with that!”

I wouldn’t blame you. Culture shock is a thing. If you want to visit Asia, but you do not want to encounter the oddities of Asia, then Singapore should be your pick. Singapore was a colony of Great Britain for a little over one hundred twenty years. They still embrace the Queen there and her language.

This is a huge boon to any prospective visitor. You can easily talk to any one if you are lost or read the street signs when trying to find that elusive Hawker stall (more on this later). You can also find some of the best malls in the world, if shopping is your thing. Singapore strives to be modern. You can find Western toilets, clean, drinkable tap water (something no other South East Asian country can claim), and a public transit system that is unparalleled in Asia. And if you want to say you tried a squat toilet, the five-star Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel and casino has them in the mall portion, just sayin’.

Singapore, a Safe Place

Upon arriving to Singapore you must sign a card that says, “The penalty for drug smuggling is death.” Maybe not those words exactly, but “death” is definitely on there. Although Asia is generally a safe place. There are some places that are a little less than perfect. Not so in Singapore. You can rest easy knowing that your stuff is safe in the hotel room. That your backpack won’t be slashed open. No one is going to be messing with you. Day or night, the streets of Singapore are clean and safe. Here, rules are king and the fines are high. I told guests at the hostel there is no grey zone, only black and white. Basically, just do not act like an asshat and you are gold.

Singapore, Get Fat or Die Trying

A picture of a soup dish in Singapore

Soup is Delicious in Singapore

Whenever I start talking about Singapore’s food, I lose control. I can’t stop praising it. It evokes a childlike enthusiasm in me. Sam wrote an article about Malaysia and said the food was excellent, BUT unsafe (he got food poisoning three times). That will not happen in Singapore. They are the only Asian country that has banned street food entirely. Instead, they brought all the street vendors inside. They are located in massive, government-run, open-air buildings called, food centres or “hawker centres”, colloquially. In these bustling food temples you can find everything you could want and many things you didn’t know you needed in your life.

Singapore’s financial success has made it a hub for immigration. You can find Indian, British, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Indonesian, and even Western stuff like salads inside an average food centre. Singaporean food is closely tied to Malaysian given that they were one country for many decades. The native food is amazing. For many, it will resemble Chinese food, but amped to eleven. The cost of such amazing food? Somewhere between two and five dollars per meal.

A picture of a traditional breakfast in Singapore

A traditional breakfast in Singapore

Yes, you can eat even cheaper in Thailand or Indonesia, but the food standards are nonexistent and you can pretty much only eat Thai food in Thailand or Indonesian food in Indonesia, but in Singapore you can get great quality food from everywhere throughout Asia. Lastly, if you ever feel like splashing out you can find great restaurants in Singapore as well. The Michelin Guide(a ranking service of the World’s Best Restaurants) has many places in Singapore that it has bestowed with its recommendations and awards.

Singapore, the Ugly Bits

Okay, so there is a lot of stuff to love about Singapore, I said I’m biased, right? But you should be aware of a few things that might make it harder to smile about. It is hot. Singapore is pretty much located on the equator on the planet. Meaning, the climate is tropical (think ninety degrees Fahrenheit with ninety percent humidity). Every day the weather report will read “tropical storms”, but in reality the rain comes in about once a day for about thirty minutes. When it does rain, prepare yourself. Let’s just say, bring an umbrella.

Another thing is that it is not exactly cheap (for Asia). Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia are cheaper places to visit. Like really cheap. But if you come at Singapore thinking it is a Westernized place, like London or Paris, it is a bargain. Using taxis, the subway (MRT) or the bus system is very cheap and extremely reliable, also air conditioned. You will pay more than other spots in Asia, but you will get more as well.

Singapore, a Place to Love

A noodle dish from Singapore

A shrimp noodle dish

So that is my pitch. Singapore is a place that offers unparalleled delights. I am not joking when I say the food is good. If you like food, you will love Singapore. If you like history, Singapore has a many first-rate museums and a botanic garden straight out of Victorian England. If you like architecture, Singapore has buildings that look like they were imported from the future. If you like shopping, Singapore has malls that outclass any mall in America or Europe. If you are a crazy person and love hot weather, Singapore has it in spades. Pretty much everything about Singapore is fun for a rollicking. And as they say, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!”

Thanks David! Be sure to check out his Instagram for awesome pictures of food from across the planet.

Making Borsch on a Commune in 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.

A Trip to Cambodia’s International Buddhist Center

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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.

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 Time I Ran out of Money in Bangkok

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Pattaya was the worst city we ever visited. The town consisted of two things. A crummy beach that was bordered by the main road, and lots of old white men with young Thai girls. Me and Joanna had a room in a building that often felt more like a brothel than a motel. This was our next stop after Koh Rong, and we stayed for two weeks because I had to work. SnookerWe drank Chang, made fun of the fat white guys in their fifties, watched snooker on TV, and Joanna played her Ukulele at Joe’s, the local coffee shop.

Two weeks was fourteen days too many in Pattaya, and on a typically sunny Thai day we got into the back of a taxi and left to catch a bus. In Asia, minibuses are a way of life and we paid $5 each for our ticket. With half an hour to spare, we sat on the beach and looked at the water. Tourists were zooming around on rented jetskis, and a portly woman was parasailing. The driver of the boat was a tease. He let her come down till her toes were dragging in the water, then he would take off, her round figure jumping back into the sky.

An hour later and we made it onto the highway. In Thailand cars drive on the left hand side of the road. It felt disconcerting to go 100kmh down the left side of the highway, with all opposing traffic driving past on the right side. Though these thoughts were quickly washed away, as I thought about what was to come. Even though we had only been on the highway for five minutes, there were already signs telling us our final destination. Bold white letters half a foot high, framed against an army green backdrop, boldly proclaimed our final stop: Bangkok.

Advice from Pavel Tsatouline

Use kettlebells, they’re amazing. In order to build strength perform fewer reps, don’t go to exhaustion. Getting exhausted at the gym doesn’t mean that you’ve had the best workout. Such is the advice of Pavel Tsatouline, an ex-Belarusian strength coach who has worked with movies stars and the Navy SEALS. His words, through the medium of a podcast with Tim Ferriss, were the backdrop for the drive out of Pattaya. I was packed in next to Joanna on the cramped minibus, and her music was being pumped into her ears at such a volume that I could hear it through my headphones.

Pavel’s two hour interview came to a close and I put on one of my favorite Russian pop music mixes. Taking stock of the situation, the first hints of anxiety began to creep into my consciousness. For the first time in more than a month me and Joanna were splitting up. She was going to an upscale hostel to meet her Danish friend Asger. I was going to a different hostel, bordering Chinatown, to fend for myself.

There were several things that made me anxious. Having to split up with Joanna played a role. As did the thought of going to Bangkok alone. It was the first massive metropolis that I was visiting in a long time. There aren’t that many cities that I’ve been to that can claim an urban population in excess of fifteen million. Moscow is one, and Bangkok is the other. Strictly by contrast, New York City looks small with a mere eight million. I love big cities, but they can also feel like bewildering, you’re on your own type places. I felt this acutely because on that day, there was one thing that kept causing my anxiousness to grow as we got nearer to the city: I had virtually no money.

In cash, I thought that there was a 50% chance that I had enough to pay for a taxi and my hostel. On my debit card I didn’t have enough to even cover the $5 foreign withdrawal fee. I had no credit cards. I had no ideas about how I would buy food. More importantly, in a polluted city where you can’t drink from the taps, I didn’t know how I’d be able to buy bottled water. All of this contributed to my anxiety, which grew noticeably worse every mile we drove.

Welcome to Bangkok

Bangkok starts off gradually. It’s like wading into warm water, you start with your toes, and before you know it you’re up to your belly and you don’t even realize how you got that deep. As we approached the limits of the city, the houses began to get closer together. Then they got taller. The sky assumed it’s perpetual polluted, always overcast appearance. When we got out of the bus for a refueling the air was ripe with the smell of tailpipes.

Back on the highway, off to the right I saw the first skyscrapers since Saigon. Glancing left, I was impressed by a Lamborghini dealership. In Dubai I saw several luxury car sellers. In Moscow there is a well known Ferrari dealership, but this was the first time I’d seen Lamborghini represented. I felt like a boy on his first day of school. 10% excited and 90% too scared to even take a deep breathe.

The traffic grew denser, the pollution more evident, and my anxiety worse. Twenty minutes after the dealership and the bus pulled over. In typically Asian fashion we hadn’t arrived at a bus stop, but instead a bazaar. A meter from the door of the bus a group of Thai men we’re eating noodle soup for lunch. People we’re selling cheap t-shirts and magnets. Controlled chaos reigned all around us.

By now my thoughts were moving so fast that it was impossible to stop them. It would be like trying to dam the Niagara river with a piece of plywood. You’re fucked. This sucks, how did this happen? What if you don’t have enough money for the hostel? You shouldn’t have bought that smoothie this morning, you’re going to need that extra dollar. Joanna wouldn’t even want to be with you if she saw what a wreck you are right now. So this is what people in poverty feel like.

Bubbly and excited, Joana walked six steps ahead of me. I followed her, and we reached the taxis seconds later. Joanna gave me a quick kiss, said goodbye, and her taxi was pulling out into traffic before I even had time to understand it. Standing there alone in that massive city, it was the most lost I’d ever felt in my life. After several minutes I hailed a taxi. Functioning at the level of a boiled lobster, I conveyed the directions to the driver. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the hostel, and I paid him our agreed upon amount. After that ride, and paying for two nights at the hostel, I was left with less than $1. My expectations were so low at this point that even if I couldn’t afford dinner, I was happy to just have a place to stay. Numbly I stowed my bags, then dragged my laptop downstairs to start writing a paper.

Fasting in the 21st Century

In the next thirty-six hours I had one beer, two coffees, and a bottle of water. I was so anxious that I lost my appetite, which was the only good thing to come of my addled mental state. I knew that Joanna would have lent me money for food, but even though my anxiety was so acute, I wanted this experience. Poor financial decisions had left me in this place, and I wanted to vividly experience the consequences. The more emotional a lesson, the more it’s a catalyst for change. I went into this self-imposed fast with the idea of using it for motivation to never end up in a similar situation again.

I succeeded. Six months later, on the other side of the world, I can clearly recall my time spent being broke in Bangkok. It was stressful and very difficult, but it lasted for less than two days. On the evening of the second day I got $90 into my account and I went out to eat. Thai noodle soup, mystery meat, mystery pastry, a cup of ice cream. I ate until my belly was ready to burst. By the time I met up with Asger and Joanna two days later, all was forgotten. We spent a night at their hostel, and then took a thirteen hour train ride to Pai.

Learning my lesson the hard way stamped it into my memory for life. Take finances seriously and think ahead. Never go to Bangkok without any money in your pocket. That’s one lesson that I’ll never have to learn again.