Saturday, October 30, 2010

You are leaving the American sector

One of my best friends and faithful blog followers, Rachel, told me she started to collect shot glasses right after she left Berlin and really regretted not buying one there.  She told me she would be so extremely happy if I brought her back one if I happened to make it out there.  Her one request fueled my determination to find a way to Berlin.  Also, I really wanted some new additions to my rock collection.  Some pieces of the Berlin wall would look amazing on Nat's window sill.  

So I bought a round trip ticket and embarked to visit Germany's capital.  I left at 8AM and returned at 8PM.  I spent the day literally power walking from site to site, jumping on and off of my city bus tour.  It gave me great pride to experience my first real day of site seeing and exploring alone.  Can you imagine?  I am so lucky to have such amazing friends to travel with.  Thank you, James, Claudia, Katryna and of course, my family.  

Vader, I know finding work has been tough since the Empire fell

Holocaust Memorial

Memorial to the formerly divided city
The Wall!

The historical landmark
Check Point Charlie

This sign really encompasses my trip

East Side Gallery

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Time has passed, and I am still glowing

Reactor #4 and a radiation meter
Well, not like the glowing in the dark type glowing, but Chernobyl is still kind of haunting me over a week after my visit.  Germany has been my in between country.  Ukraine, Germany, Ukraine.  I didn't really have much time to process my visit to Reactor 4, as I was with Claudia, then immediately running off the Germany.  Really, I think I have been putting off this post for much too long.  I refused to really think about it too much.  Everyone, what happened on April 26rd, 1986 should never be forgotten.  It is a perfect example of what happens when a super-power possesses technology that it does not understand nor have in complete control.  After the reactor exploded, it took the officials almost two full days to order the evacuation, and by then most residents had already been exposed to large amounts of radiation.  It is said that the amount of radiation released is about 400 times the amount of radiation released by the U.S.' atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  The Soviet's in Moscow did not even know there was a problem in their territory until the Swedish reported unusually high levels of radiation above their territory.  The Soviets were unprepared to handle an accident of this magnitude and when it happened, too proud to admit something so horrible could ever happen in the powerful USSR.  Generations to follow would suffer the consequences of this pompous pride and unwillingness to admit culpability.  To this day, the Former Soviet Union has done no studies to figure out the health effects this tragedy had on their people and those in continental Europe; 70% of the fallout is said to have landed on Belarus.  I find it unfair that hardly anyone ever talks about it to this day.  I wandered the ruins of the city of Pripyat less than two miles from the explosion site in order to help preserve its memory and spread the world.  It may now be a ghost town, but I endeavor to make sure its spirit lives on.

Tattered school books in an abandoned school
I went to an abandoned school and saw book after book for learning material for the boys and girls of Pripyat.  It was eerie to see the learning material.  Two things that were especially surprising to me: 1. They were learning English even back then.  The American children never even came close to even thinking about learning a word of Russian.  2. The children had a music room, art room, science room, and a war room... They learned about different types of warfare, important battles and other historical armament.  I found it very chilling to see an entire room devoted to war paraphernalia.

Platform Diving Boards at the public swimming pool

This platform diving board was especially interesting to me.  Did you know that this public swimming pool located in Pripyat was in use until 1996?  Actually, Reactor #1 (just around the corner from Reactor #4) was in use until 2001.  I can't believe that people still worked in the immediate area of Reactor #4, and still spent time relaxing that this pool.

Bumper Car

The city was built in 1970 to home the workers of the nuclear reactors and their families.  I am sure it must have been a lot of fun to come to this amusement park before the reactor went haywire.

The Famous Ferris Wheel

We continued our tour around the city and I found this bit of graffiti.  There were so many looters after the city was evacuated.  There is not so much graffiti littering the walls of what was once such a proud city.
Creepy Graffiti
Memorial to the Firefighters 

I feel so bad for the firefighters who were first sent in to put out the reactor's flames. Can you imagine showing up with all of your gear, putting water over the flames, only to realize that this is unlike any fire you have ever seen.  Water does nothing; the flames keep burning.  All 28 firefighters died shortly thereafter of ARS (Acute Radiation Syndrome).  The specific plan that was laid out by the officials to stop the spread of the radiation was tedious.  It involved many steps.  They started by pouring lead and sand bags (yes, sand bags) on to the gaping hole that was constantly spewing poisonous gas.  They later realized another huge problem: if the hot molten radiation lava would continue to burn down into the ground below the reactor and touch the water found there, another even larger explosion would surely follow.  To stop the follow of lava down, 600,000 "volunteers" sporting nothing more than a paint mask were ordered to dig a tunnel leading beneath the reactor.  Because they realized that one would get ARS from prolonged exposure, everyone would take 20 minute shifts.  The amount of radiation in the air was 15,000 more than the average humans yearly allotment.  After that tunnel was completed and the path leading to the water was built, it was decided that a sarcophagus would need to be built surrounding the reactor.  Radioactive solids would have to be removed from the roof first.  Robots but after only a few minutes, their computers would short circuit.  People were once again sent to the scene, only allowed to work a matter of seconds before being rushed back down.  Meanwhile, decontamination teams were sent to spray down buildings; cut down trees and bushes and bury them in concrete.  It was a sickening process, and I will admit I do not even remember ever last bit of their plan.  Many people lost their lives, or suffered for the rest of their lives.  Without them, Europe would have continued to have been plagued with this invisible enemy.

 I am still very emotional and passionate about my experience last week in Ukraine.  Although incredibly depressing and grisly, I am so glad I had the chance to see the city of Pripyat and Chernobyl.  Not only has it made me even more appreciative of my health and life in the United States, but also I feel like I am one step closer to figuring out what I should do with my life.

If you’re going to San Francisco…

Tell me that doesn't look like a burrito.

Maybe I am a bit homesick, I will admit, but it seems like all around me I see San Francisco.  Amelie and I went out shopping in a district that sold fabrics, cheap clothes, knock-off bags, and foodstuff wrapped in breadstuff.  As I walked by the food stand, I did a double take and said outloud, “Mmmm, burritos…”  Those are not burritos; Amelie informed me they were in fact a form of Turkish food, not Mexican.  Of course this neighborhood reminded me of the Mission.
Fish Pillows!

Early we had been walking by what I can assume was an overpriced area that reminded me of the Haight.  Random hats, creepy dolls key chains, and fish pillows (I totally wanted one of those actually). 

Can you spot the rainbow?
We of course had to make our way to Hamburg’s gay district for brunch.  I guess this area is definitely not as flamboyant as my former residence neighborhood, so I will say that Hamburg’s “Castro” is still in the closet.  You have to really try to spot the rainbows.  It was a fun place to have breakfast and the food was typically German.  Meat and cheese on a plate for you to mix and match to your pleasing.

I hope San Francisco didn’t give me extremely high standards that will surely lead to future disappointments.  It is an amazing city that I am so happy to have lived in, but how can any city try to win my heart over like San Francisco did?  From what I have been hearing, Austin is going to give San Francisco a run for its money!

We wanted to take a city tour, but since the weather was so overcast, we decided to just have a leisurely lunch by the ports then go on an epic tour of Hamburg’s sordid history.  I got grilled squid and we shared a huge pot of mussels. 

I asked them if they had sangria, and instead of simply telling me that they don’t, they went ahead and made me my own jug of it.  It was so delicious!  Full to the brim with happiness, we made our way to Hamburg’s Dungeons.  I just love cities that are on water, they make for beautiful pictures…*Sigh* 

Just climbing a random pole, of course

There I go thinking about San Francisco again.  Anyways, back to the dungeons.  The Dungeon’s tour can actually be found in a few other cities including London and New York; it is like a longer version of a Disneyland ride.  For those of you So Cal natives, remember Knott’s Scary Farm?  Where zombies jump at you and things pop out of the walls?  This tour was just like that, except it was about Hamburg’s history.  We experience the flames of the fire that destroyed the city, barely escaped the Inquisition, held our breathes as we avoided the Plague, and tiptoed during the floods.  It was a pretty neat way to learn about the city, and I was definitely happy not to be in the rain.  Natural disasters and infectious diseases still interest me greatly, so I found this tour very satisfying.

Australian Sheppard!  So cute!!

 And, Tara you will appreciate this, I found my future dog.  He had one blue and one brown eye!  Such a cutie.  Maybe if I have a yard in Texas!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Welcome to the West

Amelie and her girlfriend, Paula
I got off the plane, and look what greeted me!!  How incredibly happy I was to see my best friend, Amelie, at the airport.  I hadn't see her in over a year, when she left San Francisco and went back to Germany. 

I love it when people are waiting there with open arms in the airport lobby.  In middle school, my entire 8th grade class went on an East Coast Trip for a week at the end of the year.  I walked off the plane, scanned through the sea of "Welcome Back" balloons and we missed you signs only to realize I didn't see anyone I recognized.  Guess who's family got "stuck in traffic"?  My older sister, Diana, kindly revealed to me that there was no traffic, they had gotten distracted watching the Simpsons.  I missed you too, guys.  

My first order of business in Hamburg after a catch up session with Amelie was to go shopping for a new and updated wardrobe.  This is something I have been looking forward to since I was in Yekaterinburg and I really started to realize that I look the same in ever since picture I take of myself.  I couldn't justify the extra weight until now, as my backpacking experience is nearly over.  On a more practical note, I feel like I would freeze to death if I didn't buy some new warm cloths.  It is starting to get below 50 degrees F (7 degrees C).  

After spending like there is no tomorrow at H&M, I made my way past these beautiful sites.

I just love cities that are on the water!

New German Friends
That night, we met up with some of Amelie's best friends over drinks.  They all did an amazing time of making me feel at home, speaking to me in English, and teaching me some German phrases.  My favorite moment is when I realized they were talking amongst themselves about my voice.  I have been a little under the weather so my voice is especially low; my Russian friend from California would always tell me that I speak Russian like a man, and I think I realized that the same holds true in German.  They said it was very strong and I guess maybe that's a good thing.  Maybe it's because I hang out with Amelie when she speaks German, but German just sounds so much cuter than Russian does.  I thought if anyone was to understand the Russian need to be demanding and to the point, it would be the Germans.  Russian is very commanding and forceful language, but who am I kidding, why am I acting like that is a surprise?  I guess I am just a little more surprised that Germans don't yell, "GIRL! Bring me the check!" to get their waitresses attention.        

Me, Amelie and my new scarf

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My Funny Finnish Friends

Finnish Crew
Turns out Riga, Latvia is a very popular transfer airport because the Finnish crew that was staying with Claudia and me at the hostel were also flying there, on the same day, at the same time.  They kindly offered me a ride to the airport in their prepaid taxi van.  I was ecstatic to have company and a free ride so I took them up on their generous offer.  We made it to the airport and spend the rest of the day making many laughs (I mean, telling jokes and laughing).  I got a lot of exposure to their rarely spoken language; only six million people worldwide speak this Nordic language.  

They kept telling me that since so few people speak Finnish, it is kind of a useless language; it's finest purpose is that it allows them to talk to each other without worrying who is listening.  They were full of funny travel stories like this one: they were laughing about the time they were in Mongolia trying to get stamps at the post office.  They were having an impossible time acquiring a specific type of stamp, because none of them spoke Mongolian.  A woman passed them, said three words and got exactly what they had been trying to painstakingly obtain for five minutes.  As a force of habit, they spoke Finnish to each other and blatantly uttered profanities at the woman.  After all, it's not like anyone speaks Finish.  She turned around and retorted with an equally vulgar insult in perfect Finish.  They were dumbfounded; they met the only other person in the country that spoke their unique language.

Another guy told me about the time he woke up because some man in his hostel was holding his leg a foot in the air.  He was so confused that he didn't even know what to do, and failed to inform the hostel of the creepy inhabitant.  At least he wasn't thrown into a meat bag, I told him.

We went through airport security and I thought this sign was hysterical.  Please do not bring your guns, poisons, acids, ninja stars, maces, and other Medieval torture devices with you on this flight.  Thank you for your cooperation!

We arrived in Riga and I quickly staked a place out to sleep for the night.  I had an overnight layover.  I am so glad I made a second trip over to the transfer kiosk, because it turns out that AirBaltic would set me up with a free meal and hotel room!!  I got a room all to myself...did you hear me?  A room.  All to my self.  For the first time in over a month, I did not have to fall asleep to the sounds of someone's snoring.  It was heavenly.  After a night in that hotel room, as Claudia would have said, "I feel like a new woman."

My hotel had wireless internet, a private bathroom, towels, lotion, shampoo, conditioner.  Everything a Motel 6 in the USA would have had, but for some reason, this stay made me incredibly happy.
Hotel Mini Bar

Tonight you will learn to drink like a Russian

I was a little depressed after Claudia departed for the airport; I am not going to lie.  We had a fabulous time getting into adventures and getting into and out of trouble.  I spent most of the day after she left sleeping and trying to get rid of my now lingering cough.  It seems now, that I was resting and preparing for the night ahead.  I finally had arranged an evening with Crazy Dave from the Ukraine.

About six months ago, I told Mark that I was planning to volunteer and tour Ukraine.  His initial reaction was, “Oh my God, you should try to find Crazy Dave from the Ukraine.”  A little skeptical about his infamous title, I inquired with caution.  Dave was apparently a longtime best friend of Mark’s brother who moved to Ukraine shortly after the fall of communism, was a pioneer in the Internet Ukrainian bride industry, and all around legend.   After a few years of misadventures in the Siberian Mountains, he got married and started a family.  He sounded interesting, so Mark said he would ask his brother if he could get in touch with him online.  We soon thereafter became Facebook friends; Crazy Dave was excited to hear when I would be in Kiev so he could show me the ropes. 
Me and Crazy Dave
Olga, me and Timur

After many failed phone calls and boched planning, we finally had arranged an evening together.  He invited his lovely Russian wife, Olga, and one of his best friends.  We blasted the Black Eyed Peas as we sped down the roads to Kiev’s downtown.  Dave told him that the Black Eyed Peas once came to Kiev and he and his wife were invited to the after party because they were also former residents of Sonoma County.  How amazing is that!  We made our way to Art Club 44, a bar that hosts local bands trying to get big.  Olga and I chatted and bonded very quickly and I was feeling very good about the evening, until it was suggested that we go elsewhere because the music was too loud and the crowd too young and drunk.  We left our half consumed beers on the bar and set foot towards our next destination.
Art Club 44

We went to a very cute home style restaurant that had a pet piglet.  We sat down began to peruse the menu.  Not necessary.

Dave’s Friend: “Do you like vodka?”
Erica: “Of course.”
Dave’s Friend: “Then tonight, we teach you to drink like a Russian.”

I know I had an earlier post about only drinking vodka with little snacks and food known as zakuski, but I had no idea how thoroughly regimented shot taking can be.  We got our pickled garlic, cabbage, tomatoes, and pickles and started the process.  The first two shots we taken relatively quickly, with barely enough time to start a new conversation topic.  We toasted to our meeting and looked each other in the eyes as we cheered.  Then we settled down a bit, letting the vodka slowly make its rounds through my body.  The third shot was a shot in honor of the ladies present and is taken about 20 minutes after the first two.  Olga and I stayed seated until the men stood with their shot glasses In hand.  Third shot down.  Maybe around this point, I started to realize that my alcohol tolerance did not include vodka, as the entire time I had been sticking to beer rather than hard liquor.  After hanging out for a little while longer, it was decided that it was time to drive home.   I wish I could still drink like a college kid, because I would have loved to see where the drinking game led.  After all, I only made it to round three. It’s like a secret society, I could discover their secrets, but then they would have to kill me.  Murder weapon of choice: alcohol poisoning.   

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fail, in the best possible way

Claudia and I took a cab to a dance club that our hostel host recommended.  Upon arrival, we realized it was colder than our cute outfits could handle, it was raining, and there was an extremely long line.  We quickly decided that we were definitely not waiting in line for a club that may or may not even let us in, especially one playing notoriously bad techno.  After scouting out the entrance, I decided that Claudia and I should just go to the front and speak English.  It was worth a shot.  They were doing extreme “Face Control” that night, meaning they look at you like you were a piece of meat in a super market and decide if you are good enough to eat.  The bouncer basically just told us he doesn’t speak English and turned his back.  We are from California, we don’t stand in lines.  There ended our escapade out to the dance club in Kiev.

We cabbed back to the main boulevard and found a brewery called Шато (Shato or possibly Chateau?).  This was Claudia’s last night in Ukraine, so we decided to go big.  When our waiter came by, we told him that we each wanted one of the brewery’s specials.

Erica: “Give me the самый большый! 2 Liters” 
Waiter: “That size is for two people.”
Erica: “So….”
Waiter: “Okay, 0.5 liters.”

Claudia and I laughed so hard after he walked away.  It seems like this entire trip, people have given us strange looks when we order way more food than they are used to seeing girls eat.  This waiter just flat out told me, “No.”  It’s like when you order Chinese takeout and you get your meal with four sets of chop sticks.  Fail, in the best possible way.

Monday, October 18, 2010


We successfully made it to the capital of Ukraine, Kiev.  Our hostel is clean, the host is nice and the city itself is gorgeous.  I love walking around this city with Claudia.  She has a connection to this city that I will never have: her grandparents fell in love after meeting at the Kiev University many years ago.   Maybe someday I will retrace my own roots, possibly after the drug and gang wars have subsided in Mexico and Guatemala.  Until then, I will enjoy this Eastern European culture.

Kiev is a beautiful city full of elaborate churches, classic architecture and cobble stone streets.  We did a walking tour of the city and made our way past the following sites.  That night, we classed it up by going to the ballet.

Night View of the Street outside of our Hostel

Side Street View

Outside the Fortress

Classy Night at the Ballet

Entrance to Lavra Caves

The ballet tickets were purchased that morning and were under $3 each.  Men, take note that you can wine and dine your lady and live like royalty in this country.  The Lavra Caves under the cathedrals were an unbelievable site.  We purchased candles at the entrance, and made our way into the dimly lit tunnels.  There were icons, shrines, and cases that held many different remains of holy saints.  I didn't really appreciate seeing the shriveled hands although I do have great respect for the people who travel all over the world to pray there.  Claudia told me that went the Soviets came to take the saints away, the loaded trucks did not work.  As soon as the unloaded the trucks and returned the bodies to their resting places, they started up again.  That must have freaked the Soviets out, right?

What I find most interesting about this country is that it constantly reminds me why I studied International Political Economy at UC Berkeley.  My emphasis in Soviet History and Politics was not just so I could justify the incorporation of my fur hats and Soviet belt to all the themed parties I attended.  I know it can be annoying that I actually have an answer to the “Why are you studying Russian?” question.  I study Russian so I can learn more about this part of history that is often glazed over or overshadowed by other tragic events and totalitarian regimes.  History is a funny thing; it is only history if someone studies it or cares to talk about it.  To me, studying the effects of the Soviet Union on populations like those of Ukraine is extremely important.  

Famine Memorial

On a lighter note: Do not order hot chocolate at a Cafe in Ukraine.  You will get a cup of, literally hot chocolate.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


As an American, I think it is extremely important to spend time traveling the world and studying different languages and learning about the history of different people.  The catacombs under Odessa are a perfect example of a part of history that is important never to forget.  Claudia and I were privileged enough to take a private tour from an English-speaking tour guide yesterday.

The catacombs are partially natural and partially man-made.  The Black Sea contributed to large deposits of minerals and lime stone to form under the city.  Over a million years of natural erosion left a labyrinth of cavities and caves up to 50 meters underground.  The city inhabitants realized that lime stone is a strong rock that they could use to erect buildings.  Wooden buildings here are rare, as sturdy trees were not native of the area and importing wood proved to be too expensive.  The people excavated the limestone, and what was left was a large unchartered network of walkways that if stretched would reach from Odessa to St. Petersburg, Russia.
What a beautiful bedroom

Smugglers evaded taxation by using the tunnels to get their goods from Odessa’s port to their final destination.  During the Second World War, the tunnels were used to hide the people from air raids and attacks from the Romanians who fought with Hitler to gain a piece of land from Ukraine if the Nazis succeeded in their quest for domination of Europe. 

Lenin and Stalin: the Charismatic Leaders

There are many different levels, and we only went down about 15 meters, but just thinking about what these caves were like before the times of electricity was mind boggling.  The guard keepers were on duty for no more than one hour, because after being in an area in complete silence and complete darkness, one would start to have hallucinations. 

Remnants of a woman's mirror

During the war, the women of the catacombs served as messengers and made occasional trips to the surface; they would wear makeup, not to be vain and look beautiful, but to give their skin a more natural hue.  After one week without sunlight, their skin would start to lighten, and eventually turn gray – an obvious give away to the enemies that she was from the catacombs. 
End of the Tour Museum

It was a humbling experience to learn about how people were chased underground and lived underground for two years.