Rome Without a Home

I know that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but one of the contributing factors to my little emotional breakdown at the end of my stay in Madrid was the anxiety I had about boarding my very first Ryanair flight. With the exception of one ferry, I had made the journey from Beijing to Madrid entirely by trains, and for the first time in a couple of months I was accosted with the issues of baggage dimensions and maximum weight limits. Ryanair are known for their absolute rigidness with these rules and, being a budget airline, their limits aren’t exactly generous. I had a 15kg weight limit for my checked bag – which was already an added cost on the price of the ticket – and I was allowed to take one piece of carry on luggage that was within the dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Which would have been fine it weren’t for the fact that I had another carry on item – my little blue ukulele – that I had simply been clipping onto the outside of my backpack. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I realised I wouldn’t be able to do that this time, but also that it seemed very unlikely that I would going to fit the ukulele into either of my bags.

I figured the little instrument would get tossed around and far too damaged if I put it in my checked luggage, so I went about attempting to fit it inside by small backpack. The top was sticking out between the zippers, and it also meant I’d had to shift some things from the smaller backpack to the bigger one, bringing its gross weight ever closer to the already quite low maximum. I sat on the floor of the dorm with my belongings scattered over my bed, playing Tetris with them as I tried to fit them around the awkwardly shaped ukulele I now had to cater for.
“Do you think that’s within the required dimensions?” I asked Rachel. She wasn’t much help there, being unfamiliar with the metric system, but she attempted to calm my anxieties.
“They’re a pain in the ass, those airlines, but the trick is to be confident, if you ask me. They may not even make you measure it if you walk in feeling confident enough that you don’t need to prove it.” It made a bit of sense, I guess, but the top of the ukulele sticking out through the backpack was keeping my fear in check. It would cost €60 to check it in separately as a musical instrument, and I’d only paid $35 for it in Australia. I mean, worst case scenario was that I made it to the gate but would have to leave the ukulele behind. But still, it had made it this far, and if it came to that then I’d be sad to see it go.

***

The other thing that was causing me a fair bit of stress was that I had no idea where I was going to stay once I got to Rome. Every single hostel I found through online searches were completely booked out, save one that had a sole night available on the evening I arrived. I booked it out of desperation, not sure how I was going to travel the 15km from Ciampino Airport to the city centre at around 11:00pm when I finally arrived. I had sent dozens of Couchsurfing requests, and even posted a message on a public group asking if there was anyone I could meet up with, even if they didn’t have a place for me to stay. None of my efforts proved fruitful. It was all getting a little desperate – it got to the point where I was calculating the hire charges for luggage lockers in the train terminal Stazione Termini, and just going homeless for a new days, turning tricks in some gay bars in order to find a bed for the night. Part of me thought that was kind of exciting, like a really crazy adventure, but most of me thought it was completely insane, and frantically returned to the search for somewhere to actually call home while in Rome.

Come the day of my departure, I wasn’t doing too good. When it grew late enough in the afternoon, I gathered my belongings and trekked it over the metro station. The closest station had been conveniently closed, so I had to walk a lot further in the hot Madrid afternoon sun to finally get to a working station. I hopped on the metro and rode it out to the airport, which would prove to be another confusing game of back and forth through the terminal, getting things stamped and finding the right gates and being told to go to the wrong place by person after person after person. By now I considered myself a pretty capable and experienced traveller, and I don’t normally have too many problems with airports, so maybe it was just the stress and exhaustion of the past few days, but this terminal of Madrid airport was a real kicker. Before checking in my bag, I literally stripped down in the middle of the terminal so that I could change and pull out my heavier items of clothing like my jeans, hoodie and thick leather belt, which I could wear on the plane and thus make my luggage a little bit lighter. It was almost 40°C that day, so I looked like a bit of a crazy person as I layered up, but I told myself it would only be for a few hours, and that it was probably going to be colder on the plane anyway. You can imagine my sheer relief when I put my bag down on the conveyor belt and the scale read “15.00”. Exactly 15kg. It felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle.

But my luck turnaround didn’t stop there. As I sat down to some hideously overpriced airport food and checked into the limited airport wifi, I was shocked to see a message from a Couchsurfing host in Rome. He had replied to the public message I had sent out, to anyone in Rome who would listen. “Hey Robert, do you still need a place to stay in Rome? Maybe I can help? Valerio”. I quickly messaged him back with my phone number, as well as the brief overview of the logistical disaster that I had found myself in. His response was more than I could have hoped for – he lived right near the airport I was landing in and offered to pick me up when my plane arrived. I thanked him profusely until I used up all my free wifi.

The last obstacle to overcome was the carry on bag. “Be cool, be cool,” I repeated to myself under my breath. “Confidence. Confidence.” I had my backpack on, stuffed with all my worldly possessions that exceeded 15kg, including the little ukulele peeking out past the zippers. However, there had been no restrictions on extra articles of clothing you were allowed to bring on the plane, so I had my hoodie draped over my shoulders and over my backpack, attempting to cover any irregularities that may have otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb – and it worked! After having my boarding pass checked I was waved through onto the plane without so much as a second glance. For all the things that had gone wrong and caused me so much anxiety before this flight, everything was turning out remarkably well.

***

The flight was smooth sailing, and we touched down in Rome at about 11:00pm, with Ryanair sounding their little victory ditty over the PA system to signify they’d had another on-time arrival. Valerio was waiting for me in the terminal when I emerged from baggage claim. He was a tiny man, probably just shy of five feet tall, but he was very sweet and very generous. He offered to drive me into the city where I had the hostel booked for one night. “If you had gotten a taxi, they would have charged you way more than they should have, because you’re a tourist. They assume you don’t know any better.” Which would have been right. “Watch out for things like that.” But when his home was literally a five minute drive from the airport, I said “Screw the hostel!” and decided to stay at Valerio’s that night. 12 hours ago I had been a panicking mess, with no idea where I was going, what I was doing, or how I was going to survive the next three days in Rome. Now, I had a shower to freshen up in (though Valerio apologies that the hot water wasn’t working, a cold shower was particularly refreshing in the Mediterranean heat), a spare bed to sleep in, and a new friend who was essentially my pint-sized saviour. I still smile to myself every now and then when I think about it, filled with equal parts of gratitude and wonder that things always just seem to sort themselves out in the end.

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Beers in the Barrio: Madrid Pride

On the train between Barcelona and Madrid, I felt like I had used to as a little kid on Christmas morning – waiting impatiently for the rest of the family to be ready so that we could begin the present opening ritual with all in attendance. Except this time the only thing I was waiting on was time itself, and the high-speed train that was hurtling me towards the Spanish capital city, and while there were no presents waiting for me when I stepped off the train, there was a guaranteed weekend of fun and debauchery. Earlier in the week, I had got in touch via Facebook with another friend of Darrin, the friend in Bangkok who had put me in touch with Greg. Greg was actually the one who had told me about Ricardo – all three of them had met and become friends at the same time in San Francisco – but Darrin formally introduced us. When I let Ricardo know when I would be arriving in Madrid on the Friday afternoon, his response brought on a wave jà vu: “Great, you’ll be here right in the middle of pride!” It was be the third European pride celebration I would attend, and the second time it had happened completely by accident. Needless to say, after my slightly disappointing experiences with the nightlife in Barcelona, my spirits were soaring with anticipation at the prospect of pride in Madrid, a city famous for its partying and in particular its exuberant gay nightlife.

The warm air engulfed me as I finally stepped off the train in Madrid, but it wasn’t the sticky kind of humidity that weighs you down – it was a dry heat that was somehow invigorating, and I don’t think I’d ever felt as excited to be in a place as I was to be there in Madrid. I lugged my bags down into the metro and followed the directions I’d written down to the hostel that I had booked in advance. The hostel was so busy I had to wait in the lobby for almost an hour before I was able to check in, but my previous impatience had been lost to the overwhelming thrill I felt from simply being in the city. As I’d wandered down the small classical European streets on my way to the hostel from the metro station, it really had felt like I had slipped into a movie. The warm air felt heavy around me, as though the vibes and the very essence of the city was emanating from the buildings and coming forth to fully emerge me in the culture of the Spanish capital.

After I checked in and had a quick siesta, I got myself ready and descended back into the raw and eccentric streets of Madrid. I had not been walking for more than a couple of minutes before I brushed past an elder Spanish gentleman in one of the narrow streets. He wasn’t exactly my type, and I paid him no real attention until I heard him softly whisper “guapo” under his breath. Knowing enough Spanish to know that that had essentially been a cat call, I stumbled to a stop, a little taken by surprised. When I turned around, I watched the man wander off, not so much as missing a beat to his step, let alone looking back over his shoulder at me. I patted down my pockets to make sure nothing was missing before continuing on my way. I found the whole thing a little bizarre, but little did I know it was only the beginning of a weekend that would blow the doors off Madrid’s closet and would flood the streets with sexy and explicitly suggestive men.

***

I eventually met up with Ricardo and the group of friends he had been having dinner with at Gran Via, one of the major streets that runs through the heart of Madrid. After a rushed round of introductions that would be forgotten almost as soon as they happened, we were led into the throng of the crowd by one of Ricardo’s friends. In some ways the setup was similar to the pride celebrations in Paris: the narrow, traditional Europeans-style streets were packed with people, although while the Parisians had maintained an air of sophistication to their street party, the Spaniards seemed to be all about abandoning their inhibitions and letting out their wild sides. Everywhere you turned there was an elaborate costume, an excessive lack of clothing, or party goers who were simply losing themselves to the music that boomed through the streets. People were carrying drinks around as well, though rather than plastic cups that were provided by bars in Paris, most of the revellers were carrying around cans of beer. I questioned Ricardo on the legality of drinking in the streets, and yet again the answer was similar to what Greg’s had been in Paris.
“Well… it’s not really legal,” he said with a cheeky grin. “At least, not all the time. This weekend is a special exception. They catch you with beer tonight?” Ricardo shrugged and gave a laugh. “It’s pride!” As we squeezed through the crowds, he continued to school me. “Look out for the Chinamen,” he said with a giggle, as we passed gaggles of tiny Asian men and women pushing their way through and holding their own in the crowd, with their huge bags of cold beer which they were selling for €1 per can. Ricardo grabbed us a couple each and we kept making our way through the winding, twisted streets of the barrio (Spanish suburb) until our leader decided on a place to halt.

One of the numerous Asian people who were running around Chueca with their bags of beer cans.

One of the numerous Asian people who were running around Chueca with their bags of beer cans.

We were in Chueca, the gay barrio, but I wouldn’t have needed to read ahead in the Lonely Planet guide to know that that’s what it was. The air was thick with cologne, a sweet-smelling atmosphere that was almost as intoxicating as the beer in my system. After a while of drinking, chatting and flirting with the local Spanish boys, Ricardo pulled me away and into the crowd again, with some more of our party in tow. We emerged from one of the smaller streets into a huge plaza, where a huge stage had been set up. “There are stages like this all around the city,” Ricardo informed me. They were blasting out music that was echoing throughout the whole of Chueca, and probably beyond, and it was there that we danced the night away, under the stars on a hot and sweaty night in Madrid. Eventually the outdoor party came to a close, and I joined Ricardo and his friends as they walked back through the city to get a bite to eat. I spoke to quite a few people, telling them about my travels and helping them practice their English, but in the end the exhaustion that comes with a day of travel caught up to me, so I bid the group farewell and stumbled back to my hostel.

The street party raging in the middle of Chueca.

The street party raging in the middle of Chueca.

***

The hostel I was staying in seemed to have a strong social presence, unlike the place I had stayed in Paris, with parties and activities pretty much every day and night of the week. While it was a normal youth hostel and in no way specially marketed towards a gay clientele, they had organised a pride party on the rooftop balcony, which had been decked out with rainbow streamers and balloons and other gay-themed decorations. Normally I avoided hanging out too much with other tourists, but I hadn’t made any plans to meet Ricardo and his friends until later on in the evening, so in the afternoon I went upstairs to join the party. It was a little slow to pick up, and there was only one other gay person there – an American girl who was travelling with her brother and another friend of his. “I had no idea pride was going to be on this weekend,” I had confessed to her over a Blow Job, or one of the other custom cocktails named with appropriate innuendo. “But hey, I am certainly not complaining!”
“Wow, that’s such a lucky coincidence,” she’s said with a laugh. “We’re not specifically here for pride, but…” she glanced over to where her brother was sitting. “Let’s just say I do most of the planning, and I knew where I wanted to be, and exactly when I wanted to be there.”

Drinking games at the hostels pre-pride party.

Drinking games at the hostels pre-pride party.

I spoke to a few other people, including the inevitable Australians, of which there were plenty. The British girls who were working at the hostel tried to organise some drinking games, but I don’t think anyone was struggling to knock drinks them back. We were all sitting around in the blazing sun, so within a few hours most of the crowd was probably very dehydrated and well on their way to being wasted, myself included. Then at about 6 o’clock, the hostel workers rallied everyone up and prepared to take us down to the street where the gay pride parade was happening. I’d only been wearing thongs on my feet, since the partying on the roof had involved a few water fights, so as everyone was preparing to leave, I quickly ran back down to my dorm to put on some more comfortable walking shoes. Or at least, I thought it had been quickly. However, I returned outside to find the entire party was gone. I ran down onto the street in an attempt to follow them, but when I stumbled onto the street there was no sign of them in either direction. The pride party going, leaving behind 50% of its homosexual representatives. I would have been upset, until I realised that I hadn’t really planned on hanging out with the other tourists for the rest of the night anyway, so I set off to meet Ricardo and his friends.

After the afternoon of heaving drinking, I decided it would be a good idea to eat some food before I continued partying, to keep my energy up and hopefully soak up some of the booze. However, finding my way around the city proved a little more difficult than I had anticipated in my current state. Having absolutely no idea what street I was on, I stumbled into a Mexican eatery that was all but empty and plonked myself down at one of the tables towards the front of the restaurant. Those particular tables were quite low, more like coffee tables than dining tables, and seats weren’t proper chairs but sofas; low and comfortable to suit the table they surrounded. As I picked at the nachos that I had ordered, I found out just how comfortable those sofas were when I fell asleep on one. It hadn’t been an extremely long sleep, and I don’t think the waitress really minded, if she even noticed at all, but there had definitely been a solid lapse in my consciousness. I awoke with a startle, sat up with a yawn, attempted to finish the nachos which I really had no appetite for, and then finished up and left the restaurant. Ricardo hadn’t returned any of my messages, and I only had the vaguest idea of where I was supposed to be meeting him. Or where I even was myself, for that matter.

The streets were swarming with people – not just in Chueca this evening, but the entire city. I thought I had finally stumbled across the parade only to discover it was just one of the streets that had been closed for the parade, and the people walking along it were… well, I have no idea where they were going! To the parade? Away from the parade? Were they leading it or following it? It was completely chaotic – to top it off, the sheer volumes of people in the area had caused all the cellar networks to go down. I had no way of contacting any of my friends, and I was trapped in a seething mass of ridiculously good-looking gay men from all over the world… Okay, so I guess things could have been worse. I simply allowed myself to get lost in the moment, and flow with the crowd. Two hours later, after a few confusing phone calls and (apparently) dozens of undelivered text messages, I met up with Ricardo and his friends in time to catch the tail end of the parade. The floats rolled past as people cheered and screamed, and while it looked like it had been an awesome parade I didn’t feel too upset for not missing it. The parade was only half the event, and the following party was where the fun was really at. I followed Ricardo as someone led our group through the masses and we ended up at another one of the city’s major plazas. There we danced the night away again, and some of the guys taught me how to sing along to Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’ in Spanish (“Me encanta!”). At around midnight the party was officially brought to a close, and police dispersed the crowds as the music came to an end. I’m sure that people in the know would have been able to direct me to some of the raging afterparties, but the day I had had had left me crying for my bed. I finished another day of pride exhausted but satisfied.

Saturday night party for Madrid pride.

Saturday night party for Madrid pride.

The city went to great lengths to decorate and prepare the city for the occasion.

The city went to great lengths to decorate and prepare the city for the occasion.

***

Sunday was the final night of the pride weekend. While I had had an amazing time dancing in the streets with the party goers, I was still keen to check out what the nightclubs of Spain really had to offer. I still don’t think my experiences in Barcelona were a true representation of Spanish nightlife, and while the main event of pride had been on Saturday, if I’d learnt anything in my short life it was that any main gay event is always followed up by a recovery party. Unfortunately Ricardo was heading out of Madrid to visit some family, so I once again turned to gay social networking apps in order to find a partner in crime. The city was still brimming with tourists, and I ended up meeting a German guy named Jansen, and we shared a few glasses of sangria as we hopped around some of the bars in Chueca, waiting for midnight, or whenever time it was deemed appropriate to hit up the nightclubs in Spain. We found it peculiar that a lot of the places were closing uncharacteristically early – one of the bars was rushing to have us out and close up by 11 o’clock, something I thought would be unheard of around here. We put it down to the fact it must have been the end of a very busy weekend, and they’d already completed the bulk of their trading.

We trawled the streets of Chueca, which were littered with banners and confetti and other rainbow remnants of last nights pride party, until we finally found a bar that I had read about in the Lonely Planet guide. It was called Studio 54, both named after and fashioned in replica of the famous New York bar, although when we stepped inside I felt that tiny ping of nostalgia that hits me whenever I walk into a gay bar anywhere in the world. Jansen and I squeezed through the crowds to the back of the club, where we each bought a beer and surveyed the scene, where hips were swayed and hands were being raised to Cher and Madonna and all the classic anthems. Jansen was a nice guy, but he was a little too serious for my liking, and after a couple of drinks I left him on the edge of the dance floor to mingle with the boys within. There was smoke and mirrors, shiny, sweaty bodies, and boy, some of those men could dance. There’s a certain Latin flair that goes into nearly every movement they make, so that even simple gestures come across as choreographed routines. I wouldn’t say I was a bad dancer, but I was positively clumsy compared to some of the men around me. I flirted, I danced, I drank, and I probably kissed a few guys – by this point of the weekend I was feeling so strung out that the whole thing was now simply a blur of beer, boys and body shimmer.

There was one particularly cute guy who I kept dancing with and even kissed a few times, but every now and then he kept running back to another guy who was even more good-looking than him, complete with a killer body and washboard abs. In a sea of this many half-naked Adonis’ it takes a lot to stand out, but whatever “it” is, this guy had buckets of it. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have a chance with either of them, and it wasn’t until 5am, when we were all ejected from the club and out into the street, that the cute guy told me the ridiculously good-looking one was actually his straight brother who he had brought out for a night at a gay bar. I was a little shocked by the revelation, and they were gone before I had a chance to say anything, so in the end I was strolling home with Jansen, the air of the dawn surprisingly warm as we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

Maybe it was fate, karma, or just dumb luck, but I’d had more fun partying in Madrid than I had thought physically possible. It was as though the universe was making up for the nightlife failure that had been my few nights out in Barcelona. While I actually hadn’t befriended too many locals the way I had in Paris, I’d still met a bunch of people through fleeting encounters that I will always half-remember through the drunken haze of a weekend that was Madrid Pride 2013.

Lake Baikal: Scenery and Saunas

As enthusiastic as I am about efficient public transportation, our train out of Ulaanbaatar had been making such good time that it was actually ahead of schedule, and we arrived in Irkutsk almost a full hour before the expected time. Normally that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, but we had been due to arrive in Irkutsk at about 8am, which meant we ended up waking up at 6am for our arrival at approximately 7am. No matter the season, Siberia is still extremely cold at 7am. It was hard to believe that only two weeks ago I had been sweating it out in South-East Asia. To top it all off, the fact that we were early meant that our guide wasn’t even at the train station yet, so we all sat around in the terminal building, shivering and shaking and waiting for him to arrive. I had made the mistake of not changing out of my thin material Thailand fisherman pants before getting off he train, so my legs were feeling ridiculously cold.

Eventually Konstantin arrived to meet us at the station. He was a tall, board-shouldered guy, and his face was almost always sporting a wide, slightly goofy grin. He was particularly upbeat and cheerful that first morning in Irkutsk, which was a stark contrast to how the rest of us were feeling. That didn’t dampen his spirits though, and he herded us off into the bus and took us to our first stop – our registration. Even now I’m not entirely sure what this registration business is all about, but it involved us having to part with our passports temporarily, and a small sum of money permanently, in order to receive an official stamped slip of paper with the details of our accommodation. We were told this would happen in every city, yet when he asked Konstantin – or Kostya for short – he shrugged his shoulders and through a sheepish grin replied, “I am not sure. My country does some strange things sometimes. Maybe in case you are a spy?” He chuckled, and there was nothing we could do but laugh along with him.

***

While we had gotten off the train in Irkutsk, it wasn’t where we would be spending the bulk of our time in Siberia. After our registration, we travelled for about an hour on the bus to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. At its deepest point it is 1642 metres and tip to tip it’s 636 kilometres long, with a surface area of 31,722 square kilometres. Tim explained to me that it is so big it has a trench at the bottom, caused by the gap between two tectonic plates. As we emerged from the forest and into the small town, the lake stretched out and off into the horizon. The morning was a little overcast, and the clouds hung so low that the other side of the lake was hardly visible, and we could have easily been looking out onto the open ocean. After stopping to shower and refresh ourselves at the hotel, which was more of a quaint little B&B, we met back down by the lake for lunch. Russian cuisine isn’t too different from Mongolian, especially out here in Siberia, but I had a traditional Russian salad that absolutely blew my mind. It was essentially just a salami salad that was drowning in sour cream, but both creamy food and fresh vegetables were things that hadn’t featured too heavily in my diet lately. Dan commented that I practically inhaled it. I asserted that it was a talent.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

After lunch we went on a short walk to a nearby lookout with good views of the lake. Or at least Kostya told us it would be a short walk. “Not far, just… hmm… 10 minutes.” Maybe we were all just walking a lot slower than he was used to, because it took us about 20 minutes to walk down the long main road to get to the base of the hill, which we had to walk up in order to get the chairlift which would take us to the very top. The sun had finally showed up at this point in the afternoon, but we were all rugged up in our warm Siberian clothes, so the result was a bunch of hot and sweaty tourists slowing undressing as we ascended the hill. Once we reached the chairlift, we were also given the option of walking to the top. Given all the walking we had done just to get there, and the fact I played my hill climbing card back at the Great Wall, I felt that I was well within my right to cop out and take the chairlift. Regardless of how we got up there, I was glad we did – the view of the lake with mountains bursting out of the horizon in the distance was well worth the small effort to get there. “I’m kind of glad he lied about how close we were,” Alyson commented as we soaked in the view. “I feel like we we’re all so tired that we mightn’t have done it if we’d known.” The sun had well and truly emerged from the clouds, and the afternoon was brilliantly picturesque. Despite the effort, it was ultimately relaxing, and as we sat down in the sunshine with some cold beers, I was thankful that we were staying in remote countryside again, rather than a bustling city. The downtime surrounded by nature was doing wonders for us all.

Chairlift up the hill.

Chairlift up the hill.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out - its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out – its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

***

My favourite thing about our entire stay at Lake Baikal was probably the sauna at our hotel. After the trek back from the lookout, Tim, Dan, Claire, Matt, Jen and myself all got changed into our swimmers and headed for the steam room. It grew a little chilly as the evening rolled around, although it would remain a bright twilight for hours, but inside the sauna we were sweating it out at temperatures of about ninety degrees Celsius. Kostya joined us, dressed in nothing but a skimpily clad towel, to help operate the sauna, but he also had another surprise. Traditionally, in Siberia they use soaking bunches of birch leaves to throw water onto the hot coals and create the steam, and the branches have another purpose. After soaking them in hot water, the bundles of leaves could be used as tools of massage. We all took turns to lie down on one of the wooden benches while Kostya brushed, tickled, and gently whipped us with the birch tree branches. The smell of the foliage also seeped out from the leaves and hot water and mixed into the steam, creating a pleasant aromatherapy atmosphere in the sauna.

After a little while the heat would become overwhelming and we would have to step outside to cool off a little. Sometimes we would just step out into the outer room, where there were showers to rinse off, and other times we’d leave the building in which the sauna was located entirely, to let the Siberian chill tingle our hot steaming skin. When it came time for my birch leaf massage, we’d just returned from the outside air, and so the heat of the sauna enveloped me and dragged my body movements down to a crawl. I climbed up onto the wooden seat, laid face down, and waited for the massage to begin. Obviously it wasn’t a hard or deep tissue massage, but the feeling of the warm, wet leaves being dragged across my back was a peculiar sensation, somehow simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. Though the highlight was when he got to my feet – we had been standing out in the cold, and my feet had probably lost more warmth than anywhere else in my body. Normally my feet are quite ticklish, but as Kostya covered my feet with the dripping birch leaves they were filled with a warm sensation that felt so good it was almost paralytic.

After getting me to roll over and continuing the massage on my chest and arms, Kostya threw the branches back into the bucket of water and said, “Okay, let’s go shower!” By this, he meant step out of the sauna so he could douse you with clean, fresh water. Now, I’m not saying that I was exactly attracted to Kostya, but it had been a while since I’d been half-naked and sweaty with another man after getting a massage, and he did have quite a good physique – as I’d been unpacking that morning, I’d watched him and another guest have a push-up competition and let me tell you, the boy’s got guns. So I may have been a little flustered when the two of us stepped outside.
“Cold or hot?” Kostya asked me. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Cold… or hot?” I repeated back to him like a parrot.
“Water for shower,” he said as he pointed to the buckets. “You like hot or cold?”
“Um, warm?” I put my hand in the bucket he’d indicated to me hot, and instantly pulled my hand back out. “That’s cold!”
Kostya laughed. “Is not cold, just feels cold, ’cause… hot from sauna.” He made me feel to cold one, which felt like ice in comparison, to prove his point. “So, cold?”
“Yes but… that cold,” I said as I pointed to the warmer of the two buckets.
“So you want hot?”
I couldn’t believe how much I was stumbling through my words for such a simple decision. “Sure, bring it on,” I finally said. I was most likely going to squeal like a little girl either way, and the cold shower was quickly becoming more of a necessity.

“Okay – one, two, three!” Kostya said as he reached over me and tipped the water over me. No matter how warm he said it was, I was still a shock to the system and I’m fairly confident I let out a loud yelp as he doused me with water, washing away the bits of twigs and leaves that had stuck to me during the massage. Kostya just laughed and threw some more water on me. Cold as it might have been, it was actually amazing – the drastic change in temperature does wonders for your pores and skin, and leaves you feeling like a whole new person. I skipped away from the sauna slightly shivering in the Siberian air, but on the whole feeling like a million bucks. It was the highlight of my time there, to the point where I even went back the next night with Kaylah, Alyson, Rach, Marti and Tim.

***

Dinner also proved to be a new traditional cultural experience. On the morning we arrived in Irkutsk, Marti had attempted to pump us all up a little bit. “You guys ready to eat some dill-icious food!” She’d explained that Russians love putting dill in all their cooking – I didn’t know how I felt about that, as it wasn’t a herb I could recall coming across too often, and so couldn’t think to whether or not it was a taste I enjoyed. As we sat around the table to eat a meal that the hotel owner had prepared for us, there was a ripple of laughter around the table as the plates were set down in front of us, the generous servings of chicken and rice topped with an even more generous serving of dill. “Looks dill-icious!” Marti said through her big smile, and we all laughed along and enjoyed what was actually a delicious home cooked meal. I actually use the word ‘delicious’ a lot in my general everyday discussion of food – yes, I talk about food a lot – so the rest of the group probably thought I was intentionally overing-using the pun and persistently beating the dead horse. I swear I wasn’t, guys – it was just was delicious.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

But it wouldn’t have been a night in Russia without vodka – and we’d stocked up. We started at dinner and kept going into the night until it finally got dark, which actually wasn’t until after 11pm. There wasn’t exactly anywhere to go and party though, in this remote town, so we just sat around the dinner table talking. Slowly but steadily, the numbers began to wane as people headed to bed, and as the group become smaller and more vodka was consumed, the conversations turned a lot more deep and personal. In the end it was just Tim, Alyson, Kaylah and myself, and I feel like that night was a pivotal point in our group bonding. We’d all been together for over a week, and while it was surprising how well you get to know people when you spend so much time with them, I feel like it was those moments of candid confession and revelation that turned most of us into not just travelling companions, but also good friends.