Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Experience of a Lifetime - Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014!

After already creating incredible experiences abroad we had finally made it to Sochi - the real reason why we were on our adventure! We quickly learned that we were in fact not staying in the city of Sochi, but in another town named Adler. Adler consisted of a smaller downtown area with shops and restaurants, a plethora of finished and unfinished hotels and the main airport and train station. From the Adler train station we were able to travel to Sochi in one direction and Olympic Park in the other. While security in the airport was nearly non existent, we quickly were overwhelmed by the police force surrounding the Olympic Park and Village. Two levels of security checkpoints were put in place just to enter the trains. Along the route to the Mountains, security officers were positioned every one hundred feet along the highway, a clear force to be reckoned with. It soon became apparent that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to make an attack here, the security was too widespread and dominant. No cars or trucks were allowed to enter or leave any secured zones without thorough inspections, including K-9 dogs and inspections of the interior and underside of the vehicles. We even passed a giant truck with a massive U-shaped arm protruding from its top - a mobile tractor trailer X-Ray machine that passed its pronged arms across the bed of the truck, creating an X-Ray scan of the inside.

Upon arriving to Olympic Park, we were absolutely blown away. The park itself apparently was only finished days before our arrival, Tom described the last stretch as a massive scramble to clean up left over debris and trash. Five massive arenas sat in a semi circle, each costing a few billion dollars each to build. The size and complexity was staggering. In the middle of the semi circle of arenas sat a circle of flags, one flag for each country represented. And inside of that circle sat the Olympic Torch, a massive structure worthy of holding the precious Olympic flame. Scattered throughout sat different countries houses, we saw the likes of the American, Canada and Swiss shelters. These were hospitality houses for athletes and the special friends and families of each athlete.

Watching the Slope-Style event was sweet. Sitting in bleachers at the base of the awe-inspiring course, we watched athletes race down and perform
a series of tricks on the technical course followed by flip after flip off the massive triple jumps at the bottom. One by one each snowboarder could be seen flying off the jumps, hurtling themselves in a series of spins and flips twenty feet above the ground before landing and preparing for the next jump.
Speed Skating was also a joy to watch. We were lucky enough to witness a Dutch competitor break an Olympic record for the men's 5,000 meter. 

One of my personal highlights includes walking through a Russian market barefoot and with nothing but a bathrobe wrapped around me in 45 degree weather. Taran and I had the brilliant idea of jumping into the Black Sea, despite the frigid weather. After working ourselves up to it, both Taran and I both backflipped into the freezing water. I'll never forget the surge of submerging myself in that freezing water - but every second we froze was completely worth the laughs and memories made. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Adventures in Moscow

I arrived to Moscow early in the A.M, abruptly awakened by a woman screeching at me. I had slept through all the commotion of people packing their bags and disembarking the train; my ability to sleep through anything astounds me. After running off the train and navigating the metro once more, I was finally reunited with my Floridian friends. After our dramatic reunion we made our way together to our hotel and quickly took advantage of our new luxury in the executive lounge - all the free coffee, sodas and snacks we could ask for. 
Our first Russian adventure as a group took us to Red Square, the heart of Moscow and where the seat of Russian history is. Walking through the city quickly became complicated as we had to make connections on the metro and navigate busy streets that were not designed for pedestrians. Not before long we stumbled upon the GUM, a large and extensive outdoor mall full of shops and cafés - including a Krispy Kreme! After our delight faded we walked out into the square and were greeted with the beautiful sights of the Armory on one end and St. Basil's Cathedral on the other. We quickly snapped our souvenir pictures and took to exploring. As it turned out the kremlin and cathedral closed relatively early, so we found ourselves back on the metro riding across town to the hotel. We then took to ice skating, which was as great of an experience as any other. After playing charades with the ticket attendant to rent our skates, we found ourselves on a large rink among a throng of local Russians. After a few falls and snowball fights we turned a trip to a famous cafe across town into an adventure as we jumped back on the metro, walked several miles and ended up at a bar drinking top shelf Russian vodka before stumbling home. 

Our next day consisted of viewing St. Basil's cathedral and the Armory,
both being world class attractions. The cathedral was special in it's own right, having a maze-like interior that shuffled us from room to room to view different works of art and old exhibits. The Armory turned out to be an absolute treat as it appeared to be a surprisingly extensive history museum, starting from the beginning of time and going through the history of Russia. The paintings were beautiful and exhibits extensive. I took my time reading each rooms placard (that were written in English, woo!) to learn the history and genesis of Russian culture. 

Afterwords we set off for dinner across town. In a hilarious series of events, we found ourselves on the metro line trying to decide if we were at the correct station, jumped off the train and at the last second decided to get back on. As I made the decision, I pushed Justin into the train just as the doors shut and sped away, the face of justin disappearing through the window in the distance. We all bent over laughing and quickly jumped on the next train to find him. We ended up at an exquisite restaurant where we ordered small but tasty dishes. 
One unforgettable adventure took us across the city to the Ostinkino tower, the 8th tallest freestanding tower in the world and the tallest in Europe. We were on a mission to make it to the observation tower before it closed, and we only had about 50 minutes. After taking the metro through town we sprinted out and looked for the connecting bus. Running across roads, looking around for bus symbols and talking to random Russians led us to jumping in the car with a fake taxi - a guy who sits at bus stops and offers rides to people waiting. He took us the final few miles, but we were too late. We may not have gotten to climb the tower, but we were able to take one awesome picture instead.

We returned to our hotel tired but with no time to rest. We were to be up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport and board our planes to Sochi and fly to the adventures yet to come. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Kindness Prevails

I find that I have gratefully been a recipient to the kindness of many strangers throughout the course of my travels. Much to my surprise, it has been my last two days in Russia that I have encountered the most memorable strangers due to their overwhelming kindness. From the man with the oversized and goofy grin who helped me aboard the metro the first time to the hostel overseer to the Russian girls I shared a room with to the native group of students I spent my day with - the sheer kindness and hospitality I have been greeted with is staggering. I am leaving St. Petersburg a much happier and enriched person than the person who entered it. I find myself filled with unforgettable memories made with new friends and the knowledge that my almost romantic adventure only transpired because of the beautiful, kind and generous spirit of total strangers that I was blessed to come across. The lessons I have learned from them will never be forgotten, and I am committed to living out their selfless characteristics in my own life.  

Exploring St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is truly a fantastic city. It is rich in soviet history and architecture and is one of the most pedestrian friendly cities I have ever traversed. The Hostel keeper took good care in pointing out the must see spots of the city, and thanks to her local knowledge I was directed to the best bars and cafés in town. The Cathedral of Spilled Blood looked unlike any cathedral I had ever seen. The "Winter Palace" - as the locals affectionately call the government center - spans the length of two football fields and bestows beautiful renaissance era architecture. The town hall was a massive Romanesque winged structure right in the heart of the city. As I walked further north towards the immense canals cutting through the middle of town, the buildings changed to a Danish coastal look stemming from foreign sailors who arrived to St. Petersburg by ship. The Hermitage was one of the most prestigious museums I have ever seen, second only to the Lourve in Paris. Incredible works of art hung on display alongside an impressive array of Greek and Roman carvings. Marble blocks 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide were expertly chiseled away to reveal the likes of Greek gods and goddesses, the level of detail and sheer size almost incomprehensible. Alongside the central canal sat an island that I was told to explore which housed the most elegant graveyard I have ever laid eyes on. Built in pure celebration of the Soviet Union's immense rise to power in the 1700's, Russian military commanders with the most prestigious ranks were given a "proper" burial in a palace built of gold. An eclectic mix of a royal palace, holy cathedral and majestic temple, this graveyard was one of the more incredible sights of the city. 

After taking in the sights on my second and final day, I returned to my hostel where I spent some time getting to know the other hostel goers. The room I occupied was shared with five other girls - I am not sure how I got so lucky. We held brief conversations as their English is elementary at best but still laughed and poked fun at each other all the same. When it was finally time for me to head to the train station to catch my ride back to Moscow, I found myself in the company of a Russian girl from the hostel who seemed to enjoy my company. She held my hand and pulled me into three local bars before we were able to find a seat where I had a local beer and a customary shot of Russian vodka. With her guidance we navigated the metro and arrived to my platform with 10 minutes to spare. Had I been alone, I most likely would have been in big trouble. My train was sitting at a station outside and adjacent to main train terminal, how I would have figured this out without the help of Katarinda is beside me. My friend was even kind enough help me obtain my ticket from the window and even walk me to the train and help me aboard to find my bed. I am now laying on the top bunk of a sleeper train heading back to Moscow at 4:30 am, reminiscing on the timeless memories that were just made. 

New Friends and New Memories!

While visiting the Cathedral of Spilled Blood, I happened upon a group of college aged kids from all parts of the globe. They volunteered for an organization named ISIC, which develops student leadership skills through international internships, and I stumbled upon the Russian segment. We hit it off right away and I was soon invited to spend the rest of the day with them. After everyone got their picture taken with the American, (I felt like a celebrity) we took off for the hermitage. I could not believe where a lot of these guys were from; spanning from the Ukraine to Brazil to Siberia, they were truly a diverse group of people.  Out of the 12 or so in the group, 5 spoke English well enough to have a broken conversation with and two were able to talk fluently. I found myself speaking to the others via a translator and got questions such as "how are the beeches!?" And "is that your real hair?" 

We spent the next six or so hours exploring St. Petersburg, one of the local guys acting as our guide and translating everything into English for me. I even joined them in a cafe for their ISIC meeting, which consisted of around 30 students total. I was treated to cranberry juice (Russians seem to love juices) and a Russian dish that I call Russian pie. Essentially you cook a pie crust and stuff it with any fillings you can imagine. The two slices I had were potato and meat and for desert a cranberry and apple slice. 
Shortly after we split apart to return to our respective hostels, a full day of laughter and exploring behind us. I returned to the hostel and fell asleep by 9:00 pm, all of my energy expended from two days of sleepless travel followed by a full exploration of a foreign city. 

I Am Uncomfortable

I am Chance Wagner, a 22 year old American who is traveling through Russia alone, and I am uncomfortable. 

I am in a country plagued by political unrest and reformation, radical rebels and constant fear of terrorist activity, and I am uncomfortable 

I am sitting on a train that is a target for terrorism, in fact the very same railway was bombed and derailed 4 years ago, and I am uncomfortable. 

I am attending what will go down as one of the most historic Olympics of all time due to the dangerous threats looming over the games, and I am uncomfortable. 

I am in negative degree weather in a place that doesn't care for my well being and barks one of the most foreign languages I have ever heard. Where an unexpected change could lead to disastrous results at a moments notice, and I am uncomfortable.

Yes - I feel the most uncomfortable I have ever felt in my life, but that is exactly what I'm finding to be thankful for. I do not believe that we are called to live comfortable lives. To cower reclusively behind the comforts of home for the duration of our lives is to miss out on finding exactly what makes life so valuable. I have left the comfort of a safe environment and am forced to be vigilant in studying my surroundings, my senses piqued to notice even the most subtle warnings of a potential threat. But what happens when EVERYTHING is different? When every voice is foreign, every sign not written for my vocabulary? Not catered to my well being? I come alive. And that is why I'm out here doing this, because beyond the circle of my comfort zone I am finding growth. On the outer reaches of that sense of safety and satisfaction, you find what it feels like to truly fear for your life - and that is when you feel most alive. 

It seems to me that above all, traveling opens your mind to a worldly perspective of understanding. Broadening your horizons beyond what is familiar is how a person truly develops an image for themselves. You find what you are made of, you find how to rely on yourself, how to be comfortable in whatever uncomfortable scenario life throws at you. 

In this moment, I cannot help but to feel thankful for being a 22 year old American on a train traveling north through Russia with nobody there to bring comfort or ease, fearing for his life but also finding the courage needed to overcome that trepidation. Thankful for the opportunity to gain a new appreciation for what it means to be alive. That is an image that I can find comfort in. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Revitalizing Aspect of Cycling

Sometimes I find myself day-dreaming of cycling through Scottish back roads or perhaps descending alpine descents in Switzerland. In my perfect world kids would be given bicycles and hiking sticks and encouraged to set off and explore. There would be no suffering or anguish, only the thrill found in exploration and the joy of fellowship. It is just as I begin to imagine rafting down rivers of chocolate that I come to my senses and am slapped with reality. This world is full of pain and suffering and to try and avoid it is childish and unrealistic. Instead, we must learn to face the suffering and be resilient enough to find ways and withstand it. More so it is the suffering, the pain and the anguish that teach us. It grips and moves us internally in new ways, shapes and molds us, forming opinions on the world around us. Without pain, we wouldn't know the true extent of happiness. Throughout my life I have observed suffering in numerous outlets. I have seen pain in the form of friends losing loved ones, in the hands of hungry children begging for money, in the faces of men and women whose lives have spiraled out of control through addiction, in the devastating wake of natural disasters obliterating towns, countries and lives. This pain is inevitable, unavoidable. A part of life. 

The pain experienced on the bike however, is by choice. The torment on my mind, the anguish throughout my entire body as I fly across the pavement at 30 mph, nothing but a few centimeters of rubber making contact with the ground - a willing gamble of safety. The constrictive grip of my hands around the bars, my legs screaming bloody murder as they pump in full force, pistons revving at over 100 rpm, treading on the fine line between hysteria and reality. It is my conscience choice to push through this. I have the great gift of choosing this pain. 
As I suffer -  as I push myself into oblivion to the point that my body wishes nothing more than to shutdown - I am thankful for the pain. Thankful for the opportunity to choose to suffer, to grow with it. No ride is complete without that struggle and the joy that comes from relishing in these painful moments. While it would be a dishonor to compare my suffering on a bike to that of the real pain endured around the world, it is humbling to have the chance to suffer alongside the rest. To tell the universe that I am not too good to hurt. To remind myself over and over again that it is through pain that we grow, stay thankful and keep us better off the bike.