Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mexican Christmas

This year for Christmas instead of fighting the elements and being stranded at the airport for 12 hours, Nat and I had an easy three-hour drive from Austin to Dallas.  Well, actually, we drove from Austin to Houston then to Dallas – skipping only El Paso and San Antonio when it comes to major cities in Texas.  Nat got invited to a holiday mixer at a law firm in Houston so we decided that in order to cut some driving time out.  We drove directly from Houston to Dallas instead of back to Austin.  Usually Nat and I like to trade off the burden of driving but just last week, Nat was almost denied entrance into a bar due to his expired driver’s license.  He was as shocked as I was to find out that for the last five months, he has been driving and carrying on illegally.  So that major drive from Austin to Houston to Dallas- all me.  It might not sound like much, but unless you have been or lived in Texas you probably don’t realize how big of a state Texas really is!  While Nat attended the holiday party, I wandered around downtown and hit up two of my favorite places, Macy’s and Starbucks.  I really like the downtown because their main shuttle runs over water and everything looks beautiful being reflected off the water.

Houston Night View

Christmas was so much fun this year.  Nat was a little overwhelmed with the chatter in Spanish that went back and forth but he held up well and after a few days really got into it.  I learned how to make Mexican “gorditas” with my new tortilla making machine and salsa using my new food processor.  We must have eaten at least ½ a jalapeno with ever meal.  

Tia Del and me making "gorditas!"
We swam in the 78 degree weather and even tanned a little.  Later in the week it actually got cold, but it didn’t even matter since my aunt heated the pool to an amazing 99 degrees!  No joke, the pool was warmer than the hot tub most of the week.  My mom doesn’t get into anything under 90 degrees, so my aunt made sure to provide.  We took family pictures in the pool and everyone started drinking at 9AM!  Oh my family.  One of my cousins seemed to always have a Corona in his hand.  It was definitely a rowdy time.

Family time in the pool!

I got so many amazing gifts this year, but for sure the best part was having all of my family under one roof, curled up on inflatable mattresses, couches, carpets and foam mattresses.  I am happy that Nat was able to meet all my cousins, aunts and uncles that I grew up with in Mexico, too.  The best part, it turns out that Nat’s family is gathering in San Diego a few days after Christmas, so we decided to hope onto another plane and see them for a few days, then fly straight to Las Vegas for New Years.  Nat matches my spontaneous travel-minded lifestyle so I am grateful to have him as a travel buddy.  I need to sign off, since our plane is descending now!  Hello, California!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Flood Gates have been opened

After having spent the last month and a half studying up to twelve hours a day, you better believe that Tuesday night was a night to celebrate for the first year law students at University of Texas.  Directly after the final ended, some immediately started drinking, others napped, and others just sat dumbfounded in shock.  By 8PM all of my new friends were ready to begin the festivities of the night.  The evening was started by a three-man race to a restaurant/bar called Trudy’s.  The contestants had to tie themselves together, run to each destination, chug a large beer, and then keep running.  Nat and I made the wise decision of simply being spectators, but quickly realized that in order to continue to gawk at our friends, we had to actually run after them.  The plan quickly deteriorated, so we decided to just walk directly to Trudy’s with one other friend.
After Trudy’s, we headed to a peer’s house prior to hitting the town.  During the evening, somehow Star Wars came up and I was shocked and appalled to hear that one of Nat’s friends had never seen the original trilogy.  Out of sheer shock and offense, my gut reaction was to slap him.  Harsh I realize, but he also said he didn’t know Harrison Ford was in the movies which I think merited a slap.  I apologized, and shortly thereafter we headed downtown.

A larger group of law students had rented a party bus to head downtown, but we had something better.  It only cost my one dollar, and is totally green – public transportation.  We took some silly pictures while we waited, and I guess we were having so much fun that a homeless man decided to join us so we took a picture together.  Quite the rowdy crowd! 
Note our new homeless friend on the bottom right

At the bar, we meet up with the rest of the first year law students.  Some were dressed like elves, Santa’s ladies, or just themselves but covered in green glitter.  After a while, some of us went on a quest to find a dance floor and break it down.  Unfortunately, we realized it was still Tuesday, so dancing was scarce.  We snuck onto the third floor of a bar, only to get escorted down.  After one of our friends fell down the stairs on the way down, we went from escorted down to out.  Since everyone is done with school and I don’t have a job, I really feel like we are living the dream and constantly on vacation.  I wish this feeling would never end.

I am also feeling the holiday spirit here in Austin!  Check out the huge tree!  I felt like such a little kid spinning in circles under the tree.  I got really dizzy but held my ground.  One of our friends tried to spin but completely fell on the ground.
Nat and Erica under the Christmas tree made of lights
Spinning under the tree!

Group picture!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

I went to bed at the correct time on Monday night after I got back in town, slept 10 hours, and woke up the next morning feeling better than expected.   My only complaint was this strange subtle headache.  I literally felt like I had a hangover or something, but I had not touched a drop in a while.  Is this normal?  I mean, do people get headaches instead of just being tired?  What a strange symptom of being jet lagged. 

I got it together, and sent Nat off to his first final.  I was nervous for him, but confident because he was more than ready for his test.  I spent the rest of the afternoon doing some errands.  I used my Groupon for Anytime Fitness and signed up for my three-month membership for $30.  Besides catching up on four different seasons of television and going to the gym, I really did not do much during the couple of weeks Nat was taking his finals.  I know I sound lazy, but traveling around the world in three months is not easy feat!  I really enjoyed taking my time acclimating back to my life in the US.  I would like to share my observations on reverse culture shock – what an individual experiences upon return to his/her country after an extended period of time. 

My symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock include:

  1. Amazement at my ability to order free iced water in any restaurant I walk into
  2. Disappointment because I do not have tea or coffee 4-5 times a day
  3. Being expected to listen and understand every word of every sentence uttered by every person I interact with
  4. Realization that driving like a Ukrainian and not wearing a seat belt is no longer cool
  5. Loneliness derived from the fact that all of my best friends do not live under one roof in a hostel anymore
  6.  Feelings of rejection when my American friends refuse my offering of tea or coffee when they come over
  7. Recognition that my short bangs are not high fashion anymore 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Trans-Atlantic Journey

Cradling my souvenirs that were about to be wrapped into my jacket as cushioning

After two short hours of sleep, I woke up ready to jump to my feet.  I have always been an amazing morning person, but today was especially important.  I had some errands to run before heading to the airport at noon.  After the bed bug incident, I had to throw away my backpack so I was in dire need of purchasing a new suitcase.  I had already packed all of my belonging, duct taped my souvenirs, and shoved everything into a double bagged trash bags. I idly considered just getting the Ukrainian airport workers to plastic wrap my trash bag, check it in as is and cal it a day, but I was afraid of everything falling out so I decided against it.  I woke up sleepy James and got him to come shopping with me, because having his company in the morning was one of the conditions of staying out late the night before.  I managed to find a mesh-like colorful bag that reminded me of my Mexican relative and a suitcase which perfectly fit my trash bag bundle.  I was way too tired for painful good-byes so I said, "Until next time," and called my cab.

I made it to the airport, bought some bread and one Russian Cosmo magazine.  After all that, I had a whole 4 grivnas left (50 cents).  I was so happy not to run out of the country with pockets full of cash.  I believe James accidentaly took out a ridiculous amount of money while in Estonia and was unable to get any other country to change his money back.  I was so excited to sleep on the plane!

I got onto my plane with minimal problems and was ready for my nap.  After getting on my flight from Warsaw to Chicago, I decided that I should try my hardest not to sleep too much or else my overnight lay over in Chicago would be incredibly difficult.  I arrived in Chicago and made it straight through customs without a problem.  The airport security didn't want to let me back into the airport because my flight wasn't until the following day, but eventually they let me in.

My overnight layover was harsh.  I was the only one in the terminal besides the airport employees who were on their way home.  I went to the bathroom to wash up and was happy to remember that I had a long shirt in my carry on.  I took my jeans off and managed to remain decent because I also had thick nylons.  I wrapped myself in all the warm clothes which included my fur hat.  I woke up quite a few times to the melodic voice of the lady telling me not to leave bags unattended only to realize I was freezing.  I readjusted my jackets and managed to make it through the night.  Why have there been so many times along this trip for me to feel homeless??  Let's reminisce.

Exhibit A: A story I have yet to tell on my blog out of respect for the dignity of someone who used to be my best friend.  Well, guess what?  She no longer has dignity or my respect.  Come to think of it, she might not even have a soul.  Too much?  Well, while I was in Hamburg my "best friend" kicked me out of her apartment for no seemingly good reason.  So below is a picture of me looking homeless with all my belongs gathered together.  Luckily, James had come to visit me in Hamburg so he was there to help me move out and drink wine with me in my lowest of times.  My recently new best friend, Katryna who went to Santa Rosa High with Nat, took me into her apartment, so later that day I had a home yet again.  Thank God for real friends.

Hamburg, Germany

Exhibit B: Or remember that time I got bed bugs and had to throw away, boil or DDT all of my belongings - including my coat and shoes?  I had no choice than to resort to wearing Men's clothing until my clothes was dry, and I bought a new warm coat, and a pair of snow proof boots.
Odessa, Ukraine
Chicago airport was not quite as bad, but I definitely had bad flashbacks.  I just kept counting the hours until I got to run into Nat's arms.  The following morning, I was excited to make the phone call where I could state, "Hey babe, remember when it was 'I will see you in 3 months?' Well, I will see you in 3 hours."

I was so excited to get off the plane, I wanted to just run away without my carry on that was forced to be checked-in.  I was at the very end of a long line of passengers that were in a similar situation because we were in a plane so small that we had to walk through the Chicago snow to the stairs leading to our vessel.  I jumped around, waiting anxiously to bolt out of the terminal towards my love.  I saw my Ukrainian Mexican carry on from the back of the line and ran forward to claim it.  I used my winning smile to nonchalantly and jokingly state, "I can see my ugly bag from a mile away!"  I got a few laughs.  "Phew, safe."  The last thing I wanted is some big Texan upset at me for cutting in line, but I was desperate to get out of the airport.
Ukrainian Mexican Bag

I literally ran, then walked like a little kid being watched by the side of the swimming pool, then ran, careful not to break into a sweat - after all, I already slept in a airport, it was the least I could do to retain some semblance of attractive after my 28 hour voyage home.  I looked around and there I saw him, Nat dressed in his best suit holding a dozen roses.  Crying because you are so happy is a miraculous thing.  I have told Nat before he shouldn't be embarrassed if I start crying in public during times like this.  He still thinks it makes him look like a bad boyfriend that made his pathetic little girlfriend cry in public.  So, I cried a little, just enough to make the point that I am happy to be home clear.  Then dried them up and waited for my bags.  One of the wheels on my new Ukrainian suitcase broke, after I got out of the taxi at Odessa's airport.  Minor damages when looking at the big picture.  In the end, I am home, in one piece.

My roses live in a pitcher in my apartment, and I love them for it
My Trans-Siberian Journey may have ended, but my adventures are long from over.  So I encourage you to keep reading, because rest assured, I will keep writing.

Monday, December 13, 2010

No sleep for you

On my last night in Odessa, we attended a local bar’s farewell shindig.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had heard good review from another set of hostel guests I had befriended earlier in the month.  I was curious as to why the bar was closing down so suddenly especially since it was supposedly the hip place to be.  It seemed like a fitting good-bye to attend, since it was also my last night in Ukraine. 

As soon as I walked in, I was shocked because I felt as if I had stumbled upon a wormhole.  This bar was a combination of my high school Ska music years and possibly San Francisco in the 1960s.  The dancing was confusing and disturbing – upon first entering the bar I had the illusion that I was witnessing Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement.  There was a circle of patrons holding hands and running into and out of the circle while some strange whimsical nonsense played in the background.  I decided I had to keep my eyes on the dance floor, just in case anything else ridiculous happened.
Random Hippie Circle

While James, Leonardo and Dasha waited in a sickeningly long line for what was later deemed inferior beer, I made my rounds and talked to people who I had met over the past month.  There was one set of crazy eyes I definitely did not expect to ever make eye contact with ever again – fork girl was there.  She said, “Hi!!!” to me in her deafening high pitched scream and all I could think of was to pretend like I had no idea who she was.  The rest of the night, I utilized my survival training skills and avoided eye contact.

Penis Shirt states, "Happy Ending"
Some people at the bar bought farewell shirts that boasted a large penis on it, and I just laughed, wondering if the evening could get any weirder.  Then, I went back to the dance floor and saw this happening.

Sheer ridiculousness!  The band was definitely trying too hard, because I am pretty sure they were not that drunk.
My Ukrainian Family 

We later decided to get sushi then head to another karayoke bar.  I was excited to finally get to sing a song in Russian!  James and I sung a song from Irony of Fates or Enjoy your Bath, the most famous New Year's movie in Russian.  

After a few hours, I was exhausted, but urged by my fellow comrades that they only way to survive my last night in Ukraine was to drink and stay up all night until my flight the next day.  No thanks to the drinking, and maybe to the staying up all night.    

I really did not want to stay up all night, and at some point around 6:30AM I once again had to resort to threats of walking home alone.  Sorry, guys.  I didn't mean to break the Ukrainian tradition of drinking all night and wandering drunk into the airport.  Last thing I want is to accidentally end up back in Moscow.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Banned in the USA

The rest of the week was kind of a blur, as I finished souvenir shopping and fantasized about returning home early.  James had bought tickets to come visit me in Odessa starting on December 1st so I was reluctant to consider leaving early, that and it would be expensive for me to change my flight.  No matter what I did, my food allergy persisted, and the only thing I could think of to make it better would be to go home and seek real medical attention.  Just when I felt the most hopeless, everything was thrown upside-down. 

There was a very interesting young Dutch guy who had just checked into our hostel a night ago who I started to talk to.  He had written a book filled with photos he had taken from all the European nations.  The book included quotes, and pictures of locals who he interviewed.  For my last 20 Euro bill I still had from California, I bought his book and had him sign it.  My favorite part of hostel life is hearing everyone else’s stories.  I am always curious about what kind of interesting work people are doing in the countries that they visit. 

We were chatting when I noticed his arm.  Right away, I felt a flood of hope and excitement, because I finally, after one month, found someone else who was suffering from my supposed “food allergy.”  “Impossible that this random European guy contracted the very same food allergy that I did in only 2 days,” I thought to myself.  I asked him about it, and he said that he is pretty sure they are bed bugs, as he has seen them before.  “No big deal,” he assured me as he scratched at his neck, arms and legs.  We talked to the hostel owners, one of which just brushed off my concerns and told me that I had already been diagnosed with a food allergy.  It was a depressing case of denial on their part, because as they put it themselves, “Bed bugs are the death card of a hostel.”  I called Nat about it and told him the new revelation I had regarding my health situation and he adamantly urged me to figure it out.  I had one week left in the county, and if I had bugs, I needed to figure it out before I tracked them back to my home in Austin. 

That’s when the search expedition began.  I started with my flash light purchased by my dad in China.  I went through the corners of the bed, the bed frame, and the wall next to my bed.  At first, I did not see anything, but I felt like I was searching for lost treasure – I was determined to reverse the doctor’s diagnosis and regain my normal diet.  Then, I saw it – a very small bug running on the floor.  I jumped and reached down to squish it and there I saw the clear red-orange streak I was looking for: blood.  I now had my own proof; after all, how many bugs without wings live indoors feeding on humans?  After showing the evidence to the hostel owners, they went through the room to look themselves.   Five minutes later, a bigger one crawled out my mattress causing me to scream.  Then it hit me, I had been getting eaten alive for one month….what a disturbing discovery.

To make a very long story short, I felt it in my health’s best nature to relocate.  You know you have a problem when you are afraid of giving street kids a communicable disease or parasite.  Lucky enough for me, I had made some amazing friends over Thanksgiving dinner who out of the kindness of their hearts put risk to their own home aside, and allowed Dash and me to move into their place.  I boiled clothes for an entire day, dry cleaned the only jackets I owned, and threw away all of my shoes.  The rest of my souvenirs took permanent residence on the balcony where if the USA banned chemical DDT spraying did not kill the potential eggs and bugs that were living in my belongings, the below freezing temperature would.  I picked James up from the train station wearing a male friend’s shirt, PJs, jacket and oversized shoes.

Our new outfits
Ready to brave the cold wearing Nik's clothes

Boiling clothes
I realize that I look ridiculous and this horrendously disgusting tale sounds unbearable, but it was all worth it in the end because it enabled me to move in with my new family.  This past week was by far the most enjoyable week in Odessa I have had so far; I have my best friends James, Dasha, Leonardo and Nik to thank.  

Hablas Espanol?

After weeks of somewhat depression and homesickness, I was finally starting to pull myself together.  I met someone at the Thanksgiving dinner who would soon become a really good friend.  My new friend, Leonardo, is from Ecuador and is currently studying at Odessa’s Conservatory.  His Russian is amazing considering he has only studied the language for six months, but his Spanish is by far better than his English (of course).  We hit it off right away after he straight out called me on my ambiguous nationality by simply asking me, “Hablas Espanol?”  I was shocked, because most people do not really know I have Latino blood in me, but Leonard saw right through me.  He was ecstatic to meet someone who he could speak to in Spanish, because nothing beats your native tongue.  After chatting it up for a while, we decided that we would for sure be hanging out over the weekend.

On Saturday, we meet for lunch and feeling rebellious, I ordered a pizza albeit my doctor’s orders were to avoid food that was red.  I just couldn’t take it anymore.  Leonardo was so patient even though I know my Spanish was extremely rusty given the fact that Russian was slowly creeping up trying to claim its spot as Erica’s preferred second language.  We eventually went shopping for book and DVDs in Russian – I am proud of my new full collection of 24 and Star Wars.  I will never be lacking for Russian practice with my new purchases. 

Eventually, we said good bye and I headed back to my hostel as shortly thereafter, I started to notice more spots appearing on my arms.  “Oh no!” I thought, “I knew I shouldn’t have had the pizza.”  Again, I went to bed feeling upset at myself, and promised for my very short last week, I would only have potatoes, cabbage and bread. 

International Thanksgiving

I will soon get to the very unfortunate reason for my delay of writing, but first, let me tell you how I spent my American holiday in Odessa.  I was actually just a tad depressed that I had potatoes and raw cabbage instead of my usual delicious feast on Thanksgiving.  This is the first year that I have ever been away from either Nat’s or my family.  I am accustomed to juicy, perfectly prepared turkey, steaming sweet potatoes, Costco pumpkin pies, and hours of eating.  This year was just a tad bit different to say the least.

On Thursday I was warmly reminded of my country’s holiday by my hostel mate, Dasha.  She is one of the sweetest and genuine girls I have ever met.  I was surprised that she remembered that Thursday was a holiday whereas I was somewhat stoic to the fact.  I went through the day, although thankful for everything I have in my life, minus my food allergy, slightly depressed.  I was constantly reminded of my absence while surfing Facebook; all of my friends were excited about their big plans to celebrate the occasion with friends, family and food.  I guess for one of the first times the entire trip, I found myself somewhat homesick.  Just then, I remembered I had received a very thoughtful invitation from an ex-pat named Nik who was working for a different hostel in town.  My mood was lifted as I made the phone call to ask him about the event’s details and what I should bring.  He simply told me to bring something I could share with the rest of the group.

I arrived at the dinner one hour late because I had to go home and prepare something, but as I suspected, I was still one of the first to arrive.  Being late to events and parties is one thing Americans and Ukrainians have in common.  I joked about how I am happy that this party was not being hosted by a German because everyone was so late.  Even for me it was too late, as I had not eaten and by 8PM I was famished.  Finally the rest of the crew arrived with an amazing set of dishes that really represented the international composition of our friends.  Along with the turkey, we had a Greek sauce, Mexican dessert, and a lot of vodka.  My only complaint about the meal was the limited amount of turkey each guest was allowed to consume; it just seemed to incredibly small compared to what I am used to.  I suppose that eating until you cannot move is not really the point of Thanksgiving, so I let it slide.  
Greek Sauce
There was more alcohol than food at our dinner
Salad and booze
 I was telling the rest of the guests how I was sad that I could not eat or drink most of the items on the table; I showed them my spots and another guest gave me the new nickname “Blotchy.”  The hostel owner asked me some questions about my spots, then simply after a short analysis told me he was sorry to inform me, contrary to my doctor’s diagnosis, I actually had a really bad case of bed bugs.  Although concerned, I shrugged it off because someone in my hostel would have mentioned the tale-tell signs by now, or another guest would have been complaining.  It just did not make sense to me that I was the only one who had been suffering over the course of the month.  I definitely kept this new information in my mind, and decided I would keep my eyes peeled for signs of bugs.  I pushed the thought out of my mind so I could enjoy our company.
International Thanksgiving Guest

After the delicious dinner, we went to the living room and began a game of Ukrainian Monopoly.  It was even more vicious and unrelenting than usual.  There were under the table deals, extortion, and even a Casino where you can gamble away your money.  It was an interesting spin on the American classic.