The Time I Got Stuck In Several Countries: Part 1 – Russia



This is the story I have retold the most in my life. And for good reason. It kind of sounds made up, yet not really epic enough to be worth the time imagining it. Maybe I should let you, the fearless reader, decide whether or not it is a tale worth continually spinning.

In 2008, I traveled to the small medieval town of Brno, in the Czech Republic. Now, if you’ve never heard of Brno, you’re probably far from alone. It’s a university town, in the West. Why in anyone’s name would I decide to make Brno, non-descript Brno, my first destination ever to travel to in Europe. I had no part in the decision making process. I acted in a play and the play was recorded and submitted to a festival in Brno. So I was in Brno. There I was. Like a dog after a bath. I raced all over experiencing firsts. Monumental firsts! Such as riding a train for the first time. As passengers sat looking at mobile devices or gossip magazines or dozing off, drool and mushed fleshed smeared against the windows, the most beautiful, living landscape wooshed by, only replaced with more beautiful scenery. I was shocked. I had not the experience of doing a daily commute abroad, so could not comprehend how people were able to refrain from constantly staring out of the window at the natural masterpieces. The train felt like a revelation. The passengers felt like a Tuesday.

Adventures through Czech Lands - walking through the mountains around Czesky Krumlov.

Adventures through Czech Lands – walking through the mountains around Czesky Krumlov.

The play ended and the options were endless. A friend and I traveled through the Czech lands, utilizing the infant couchsurfer project, finding amazing hosts throughout the country. An Irish dancer in Olomouc, a mechanic and his family living in a small town outside of Ceske Budejovice. We ended up in the capital. He left. I stayed. Stayed and taught English for four months. A contract ends and freedom once again is attained. I decide to explore my Jewish cultural heritage. Though I felt very little connection to my faith, I was interested in my history, interested in seeing the places where thousands and millions of my supposed extended family were imprisoned and slaughtered. There was other histories as well. And I was interested in them too. The stones of walls and cobbled streets narrated aloud. I travel along a zig zagging line across Eastern Europe on several chugging bullets. I see parts of Poland, the dark undertones of The Holocaust seep into every observable space. I continue on. I almost visit Belarus (a story), but end up in the Ukraine instead atop a tin roof, with one of the leading members of the Ukrainian Gay Rights Movement. We watched the sun ride over onion shaped domes and steeples. With Visa clutched tightly, I enter Russia. I spend time with family friends in Moscow and move onto to stay with a couchsurfer in the beautiful and ancient city of St. Petersburg.

Train to Russia

Train to Russia

On the day my Visa expires I hug my couchsurfing host goodbye and board a bus heading to Estonia. The bus, once a thing of beauty, sturdy as a mechanized colt, now emitted the sounds of a starving stomach, a machine on its deathbed. It breaks down and takes an hour to fix. We reach the boarder in the pitch soot sky of the next day’s morning. We are all made to exit the bus and walk through passport inspection and security. I haven’t noticed the time yet. There are no clocks on the walls. I hand a guard my passport. He squints to make out the dates on my visa. We stand still as steles. The line no longer moves as the guard calls upon someone else, another guard, who I can only presume is his superior officer. Broken English leaks from his mouth in a monotone fashion:

“I am sorry. Your Visa is no longer. You cannot leave.”

I stand, backpack still strapped to me, sweat stained, knees knocking, body burning. I stand for two hours. I am finally allowed to take a seat in a waiting room that reminds me of my childhood pediatrician’s office. I can see into another office space, where a woman types away on an old typewriter. Maybe it was a computer, but I see it in my mind as a typewriter, so that’s what it shall be. I have already pleaded in English to any passerby, telling them my tale of an unlucky experience with a rickety bus. The faces whizz by, not all too concerned with my gibberish, my babbling. I whip out my electronic translator and attempt to make a sentence. I think I am saying:


“My grandmother was kicked out of Russia one hundred years ago and now you are imprisoning me in it. Please, please let me go.”

Could anyone understand my butchering of the Mother tongue? At first, no. People went about their menial tasks like good Communist worker ants. Then I see the woman at the typewriter through the door. The old typewriter has stopped clanging. She is frozen in a still frame. She wears a pastel dress that looks very itchy. She is a still frame except for the tears streaming down her reddened cheeks. Yet there is nothing she can do, so she breaks from the trance and continues to type. I feel her. There is nothing that I can do either.

An officer approaches me and explains my crimes once more. I am frustrated and tired and really don’t need another explanation. The officer tells me I will be boarding a bus.


Where to?

St. Petersburg.

That is the last place I wished to go now. And yet, that was what was happening. My frustrations no longer could be contained. Be damned with the consequences of voicing my objections to the regime stoolies. What could they do? Throw me in jail?….Yes! But if I get caught wandering the streets of Saint P without a legit visa, I’ll be in the same spot. I air this concern with them. It gives them a good chuckle. I yell. I curse. I am now sitting on a tourist bus. A tourist bus heading to Saint P. It drops me off in a part of the large city that I don’t know. Think Ira. What are you going to do? I find the subway system and descend into the arterial tubes bellow the city. Somehow, I remember the directions to my couchsurfer’s home. It’s 4:30 in the morning. I don’t wish to disturb her, but my options are limited.

I pensively knock. There is an audible stir from within. The door creaks ajar and she stands there, hand behind her head, stretching, scratching.

“I am so sorry…..”

I unfolded my blanketed story. My former host stands there, looking lost, eyes mostly closed, body rocking. Yet her pause was one of consideration. Her solution was swift and to the point:

“Let’s have Port.”

“Um. But…”

“No but. Offices aren’t open yet. Only thing open is Port.”

I couldn’t argue. Port, port and more port. A call to the Canadian embassy provided no answers, but asked if I found some later to pass them on to this fine governing body, so that they can take credit from what I have learned from this plain shit-storm experience. Thank you tax dollars. As useless as national pride.

I bought a new train ticket and did a bit of snooping around for information on what my next move would be. Rumor has it that there is a phone somewhere in the St. Pete’s airport that you can call and contact a guy who you can bribe to leave the country. It was worth a shot. After six hours of searching the airport for the Where’s Waldo Phone and having some of the best damn sushi I had ever had (which threw me off, as the sushi maker was blonde haired and blue eyed), I found the mythical phone. Wheezing, an extended cough greeted me.

“Hi, my visa expired, I would like to get an extension so that I can leave Russia.”

“You buy plane ticket…”

“I bought a train ticket…”

“No….you buy plane ticket.”

“But I have already spent money on a train and bus ticket”

“You buy plane ticket”


“These are student rules? THESE ARE RUSSIA RULES!”

And he hangs up. And I stand there. And my blood boils. And my eyes well. And I hold it in. And I pick up the phone. It was a red phone, like the emergency phone that Commissioner Gordon would use to contact Batman with. I pick up the phone and I call him back. I have no idea who this man is. I have no idea if he is also having a bad day. He is just following orders. Well…not really, as what he is doing is bribery, but….still. He’s just trying to make a buck.

“50 dollars”

50 bucks to be exact. 50 bucks for a visa extension. I looked it as 50 bucks for freedom. I am sure many others who do not have freedom would pay way more for it. And he was my only option. He told me that I needed a plane ticket and fast. I was original set to be in Estonia two days ago via bus, but couldn’t find a flight there. Instead, I flew to Tallinn, the capital of Finland. It was a ferry ride away to get back on track.

As I crossed the tarmac, the sun falling behind the outlines of shady watchtowers, I breathe deep for the first time in a few days. A final double peace sign photo op at the top of the stairs, then I duck into the plane. That duck was supposed to be like a Mario duck, leading me to safety. Mario’s not real and nor was my perceived safety.

Better times in Russia

Better times in Russia



Wide Eyed Prague – First Time Living Abroad

Looking back to when I first got my taste of travel in 2008, I couldn’t have guessed the lifetime commitment I would make to cycling around the globe, seeing, smelling, tasting, spontaneously dancing in so many amazing, unique, exhilarating places. I thought I would share some of those first images, re-saturated and re-edited for your viewing pleasure. The first batch of photos come from that first trip. I had the lucky fortune of being invited to perform at play in Brno, Czech Republic, a place, that prior to being invited to this festival, I had no idea existed. After traveling around the Czech Republic, I landed a four month contract in Prague, teaching English.

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A Rambling Minimalist Approach to Backpacking

St. Barbara's Church, Kutna Hora. It is one of the most famous Gothic Churches in Central Europe and is recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Sight, yet is over shadowed by Kutna Hora's main attraction, the bone church.

St. Barbara’s Church, Kutna Hora. It is one of the most famous Gothic Churches in Central Europe and is recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Sight, yet is over shadowed by Kutna Hora’s main attraction, the bone church.

Like the archetypal image of the convict from black and white films, a backpack overloaded with all the “travel essentials” seems to be the unfortunate, yet necessary ball n’ chain involved in backpacking. Quite ironic, right? Backpack is also the unifying verb, used to describe a presumably more economical and sustainable method of travel. I find that interesting, considering that suitcase travel seems to be an older form, which in English, usually means that it, not the newer form would transform via paleologism or verbing…but I DIGRESS!

Art in Prague

Art in Prague

A common sight in a foyer of a hostel in any given country: a line up of tired, impatient and dripping backpackers, waiting to check in or check out, their framed backpacks slumped in front of them like a not-a-care-in-the-world drunkards, resting against throbbing shins, being kicked and shoved, because it’s not worth the effort to hoist them up onto aching backs for the short journey to the counter. Then there are those moments when you don’t have time to check into your accommodation, or that you have no accommodation and you have to shlog your freakin’ life up the side of a mountain, or along an uneven, ten million kilometer hike (not really ten million kilometer, but it sure as hell feels like that). You begin to despise your helpful travel companion, dread the daunting task of finding a safe and secure place to store it, so you can enjoy light-loaded exploring once again. Then comes the further dread of trying to squish your sagging sack into the aforementioned storage space, which through tear soaked pleading and prayer, you personify as someone that through language you can convince and sway to do your bidding (“please, storage container in the train station, get bigger to accommodate my backpack and I will give you many shiny coins”). I use to think, due to my socio-economic status, that this version of travel was the only practical way to go and that the heavy backpack, was just the burden I had to bare.


But what if…we reassess what a travel essential is. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines “essential” as “affecting the essence of anything; ‘material’, important”. I interpret essential items, as things that are necessary and vital. If I were to look through many a’ backpackers backpacks, I am pretty many of ‘essentials’ I pulled out, would not fit the mold of my definition. A hairdryer and towel are not vital items for travel in warm places. The several scenarios that call for these items can be efficiently be filled by warm temperatures, supplemented by five minutes of physical spinning and/or sprinting. You may get the reputation as the “spinning man or woman in the shower”, but why not? It’s one less thing you need to consider lugging around and I think that reputation will garner you at least one single free drink at the hostel bar.

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

And there are other items as well that are not really essentials. In 2010, my friend who I was traveling with, challenged me to travel for three months with the same size backpack as he was sporting. Backpack is a generous term for a small knapsack that covered a little less than half of the area of his back. Okay, fine, if he can do it, so can I. You, dear reader, having no idea of who this nameless travel companion was or what his demeanor and prowess were like, giving you no premise to judge if my assertion is logical. I am in the clear to make such sweeping assumptions. I spilled the contents of my backpack onto the Amsterdam hostel bed I was to occupy that evening. Looking down the assortment of shapes, colors and their allocated uses, I asked myself a simple question:


With the trip I have planned ahead of me….what will I need?

Flowers, Wawel Castle, Krakow.

Flowers, Wawel Castle, Krakow.

First I started looking at my clothing. All the shades of the rainbow! If your methodology behind packing different outfits is to blend in to the populous of where you are traveling to, to be blunt, more times than not you’re not going to be able to, so why try? Also, what benefit is there to not standing out? If there is none, and if there is, in fact, benefits for standing out (people help you and forgive you when you do something possibly culturally insensitive), then why are you going through such counterintuitive rigamaroo? In these situations, extra clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc. simply amounts to undesirable weight. A few good pairs of socks, two or three undies, a pair of pants, a pair of shorts, a long sleeved shirt, a short leaved shirt, and maybe a sweater, if required, is all you need. If your going to the Gobi Desert in summer, I don’t think a parka is ever going to become a sensible garment to wear. Especially in warm environments, seeking out a washer or dryer is unnecessary. A bar of soap, a sink and maybe something to stop up the drain, and you can wash your clothing and hang it to dry over night or wash in cycles, doing several items at a time to dry throughout the day. Bring durable, clothing you won’t be heartbroken over getting destroyed, because over time, the wear and tear of travel will take its toll on your clothing’s elasticity, shape and color. Skin tight will become oversized, form fitting, malformed.

Adrian Palace, Prague.

Adrian Palace, Prague.

Vitamins, perfumes, facemasks and other niceties are nice additions to your post and pre-bed bathroom rituals, but you probably won’t spontaneously combust if you don’t have them. I understand that there are several toiletries that women require that men do not, but there are also several items that mass media and society says are essential to use prior to leaving your home in all circumstances. These socially induced standards are North American centric. In other parts of the world, ideas of beauty, professionalism and appearance are varied and far from the women of Cosmo or the Men of…..some masculine centred reading material. Again, you are traveling. You are going to be constantly adorned in sweat and food stained clothing, have brown encrusted cuticles and constant layer of fine dust choking your facial pores. We get it. In fact, many people will look at your disheveled presentation with jealousy, wishing that they too could escape the daily meat grinder that was turning them all into wurst. A toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, contact kit, medicine and feminine hygiene products are all you reallllly need. Maybe a hand sanitizer, though, what germs can’t kill you, will make you stronger.

The shop owner near my Prague home in Vysherad in 2008.

The shop owner near my Prague home in Vysherad in 2008. We would exchange English lessons for Czech lessons.

Electronic devices. Is there one device that can substitute several others? A tablet can act as a smaller computer, an e-reader, a music player and a phone. They are big enough to search the web and type emails, yet small enough to carry several PDF or electronic guidebooks, eliminating the old, cumbersome text versions, that easily open up in public and quickly and electronically search what ancient monument or historical artifact that you looking at. It can also be used to store offline Google Maps, replacing the hard-to-refold maps utilized by our ancestors. What about a camera? While it isn’t essential to capturing your trip through photos, it is a nice way to preserve your memories and act as visual aids for your long-winded traveling stories, so your friends won’t be lulled off to dreamland, where more interesting things are happening. But do you need a fancy DSLR? Though it would make sense if you were a photographer by profession and that you had some inkling that your travel photos may look better or have monetary value blown up as posters, then bringing your purdy Canon with five different lenses and several filters may make sense. Yet if you are simply trying to quickly snap an image of that dancing monk or the fast moving, stampeding elephant (random, confusing example images, I am aware), then the camera on a high quality Ipad will do just the trick. And with the numerous Instagram filters and options, your photos will be edited and posted in no time. And to be honest, those viewing them online and in person, will have no clue whether you manually shot them on your expensive-device or dirtily shot them on your Ipad. I may get shot for saying this, but as an avid user of DSLRs, I think alot of the quality I see in their pictures is due to tad of elitism on my part.  And when your Ipad storage with additional 64gig flashcard memory are eaten up? Simply upload them to the eponymous Cloud or DropBox and your back to flashing away.

Wawel Palace Cathedral, Krakow.

Wawel Palace Cathedral, Krakow.

Now, this is by no means a concise or all-inclusive list of what you need and what you don’t need for backpack travel (in fact, I am stopping at this point, because I feel I could go on and on and on…). This list does not take into consideration cold weather conditions, dietary restrictions, people with disabilities, and a plethora of many other variables. Since I was traveling and camping, I required a sleeping bag and tent as well. What I hope to accomplish, in some small way, is to push you to reconsider how you travel and what you need to get up and out there, with no excuses. I believe travel comfort is important and can make or break an experience, an outlook of a place or the concept of travel in general for someone. The ease of mobility as a traveler can make spontaneous trips and walks possible and gives you the ability to cover more distance in a day. Both of these factors may improve a traveler’s chances of seeing more and the plausibility of extending their trip. My anonymous friend challenging me to get rid of my bulging bag in exchange for a more reasonable ruck was a rousing revelation. It had me questioning almost every guidebook pack list I found and think about the consequences of having such burdensome behemoth latched inches above my posterior. Though it’s not always possible, considering downsizing what you bring with you on your journey may open up more outside of the box travel approaches and options. Also, knapsacks fit easily into overhead compartments, under train seats and make pretty acceptable pillows.

Vendor, Krakow.

Vendor, Krakow.