My study abroad trip should have ended in St. Petersburg, Russia. But the promise of adventure would consume my every thought until all other matters were extraneous.

After three short weeks in Tallinn taking Russian language classes, my study abroad experience at the University had ended. I made so many good friends in class and I definitely wasn’t ready to go home. Once classes had officially ended, I and a half dozen others booked a school sponsored bus trip to St. Petersburg, Russia for a three day tour. I packed up all my belongings, checked out of my dorm and hopped on the bus, headed east!

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St. Isaac’s Cathedral

The bus was one of those big, upscale coaches with 50 or so seats and completely packed. I remember sitting near the back and watching the Estonian countryside pass by and thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m going to Russia! I only know about it from TV and movies.” My first experience went something like this…

We came to the border at Narva, just before entering Russia. Barb wire, concrete edifices and military fatigues were the overwhelming theme of this place. Parked with the engine shut off, two military men came on board and started checking passports. I had my visa and passport ready, but the austere demeanor of these guys had me terrified. No smiles. No laughter; the mood now set for my Russian expectations had me concerned.

Everyone had their passports returned to them… but me. He put mine in his pocket and left the bus. The doors shut and we rolled away. WTF!! My friends looked at me, “Why did he keep your passport?” I was speechless. I have no idea why he kept it but it looks like we’re leaving!

Panic and adrenaline surged through my veins as we drove through the gates, but then pulled over and shut the engine off once more. We were instructed to de-board so they could check our luggage. Soon after, my passport was returned and my anxiety lessened. Had me freaked out for a second!

Back on the bus now and officially rolling through Russia, the scenery had completely changed. BIG. That’s the word that comes to mind. Out in the country and still a ways away from the city, everything was set back from the road and many miles apart. The Taiga forest stood tall and stretched into infinity; hauntingly so and whispering to itself softly. Grey clouds and cool air enveloped our surroundings but did nothing to diminish the powerful sense of vastness to the land. I mean at first glimpse, Russia seemed to go on forever.

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Peterhof Palace, 2008

The first stop on our journey was at Peterhof Palace. Commissioned and founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and adorned with the colors blue and gold, this stop made for an impressive attraction. I even happened upon my first market place where the iconic Russian nesting dolls were being sold. I wanted to buy one and even had some cash in my pocket but decided to save it for later. (The financial drama of my trip was just beginning.)

After sightseeing, we arrived in the heart of St. Petersburg and checked into our hotel. The buildings were just massive! I can’t express enough just how big everything seemed; as if taking your dog for a walk around the block required a heavy suitcase and a heart-felt goodbye from your loved ones. (Oh, and there’s a big river and many canals strewn about the city. It reminded me of Venice, Italy but you know… bigger.)

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Insert funny story here
That evening some friends and I went out exploring for something to eat. We. Walked. For. Ages!! Looking for some kind of restaurant. Finally we stumbled upon this old, remodeled pirate ship docked on the river. We could hear the clanking and chatter of restaurant goers inside and allowed a faint hope to swell in our empty bellies. I approached the maître d to ask for a table, but before I could speak he looked me up and down and then said the only two words he knew in English, “Dress code.” I marched back to my friends, a defeated man. Apparently these camo shorts and sandals were a super poor choice on my part!

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The next morning we had a guided tour booked to take us to Catherine Palace, Church of the Savior on Blood (featuring colorful spires and intricate designs indicative of the Russian orthodox church), and Nevsky Prospekt which is the main street in the city. I snapped photos and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

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Church of the Savior on Blood

My travel buzz was to receive a reality check however. I noticed earlier my debit card didn’t work at an atm, and after the tour was over around lunch time, I went to try it for a second time, but again was denied access. I was in real trouble. I still had two days left in Russia and I had no money apart from the change in my pocket. Too proud to ask for help from my friends, I wandered the city in the rain all afternoon while they visited the Hermitage Museum. I remember watching my friends go inside and feeling so left out; too broke to join in.

I was so tired from worrying about money. I hadn’t eaten all day and desperately wanted to go back to my room to rest but the pressure to explore and live every moment to its fullest won over. So I ambled unbound throughout St. Petersburg, Russia; hungry, tired, broke and alone.

rough afternoon

rough afternoon

Cold and wet now; feeling depressed from the stress over money and food, I made my way back to the hotel in sheer exhaustion. I passed a liquor store and had the ingenious notion to spend the rest of the change in my pocket (too little to buy a meal) on a half-liter bottle of vodka. When in Rome.

Back in my room, I slammed the bottle while thinking how cool it was to be drinking vodka in Russia. Shortly after and rightfully so, the room started spinning and I got sick. The rest of the night was a miserable blur; up at 4 am trying to take nightscape pictures of the city with one eye open so I could see straight.

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I awoke the next morning to a hangover so bad I caught myself thinking, “What’s the Russian word for Hospital?” God I felt terrible.

(I wonder what possessed me to drink like that. I was young, still in college and very much in party mode. Part of me felt on top of the world, being able to travel to Russia and see so many amazing things. But another part of me, so depressed by money troubles and lack of eating anything, turned to the one thing I *knew* could make me feel better; alcohol. The Animal House lifestyle of my early twenties engrained in me that if I wanted to have a good time, I needed to drink. This negative, subconscious thinking would take years to unlearn. Lol! Today I can barely finish a beer. I’m so happy about that 🙂  But at the time of this story, it’s all I knew how to do.)

So after missing my alarm clock and keeping an entire tour bus waiting for me, we took a boat ride on the Neva River as the final goodbye of our time in Russia. The rocking back and forth and back forth did wonders for my hangover, let me tell you! Yeah, my empty stomach led to wretched dry heaving in the restroom down below the deck.

After composing myself, I sat quietly and waited for the boat ride to end. Once back on land, I took one final look at the city, silently saying thank you, and then took the 5 hour bus ride back to Tallinn, holding nothing but my memories and a few pictures.

I’m so glad I went to St. Petersburg. The city was full of life, color and wide open spaces so large it felt as if it were built for giants. I would love to go back because my own personal experience was one of struggle and anxiety. I felt rushed to stay with the group, I ran out of money and couldn’t speak up for help, and again, I barley ate anything. The phrase, “Forcing myself to have fun”, popped in my mind and has been a reoccurring theme in my travels. The ever present excitement of a new place would always come before my health and well-being.

I learn everything the hard way! #liveandlearn Click To Tweet

Back in Estonia, I was feeling better. The atm machines were working for me again and the pressure was off to get some cash. I could breathe again. My flight home left in 4 days, and in my head that meant, “I can do one last trip!” So, guided by my adventurous spirit and forgetting everything else important, I booked a bus trip south, to a town in Lithuania called, Kaunas.

p.s. the title of this post reads, “I speak Russian.” 😛

I spent three days in Russia unable to get cash. What travel horror stories do you have? What’s the most stressful trip you’ve been on? Comment below!!

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