Embracing the Challenges of Traveling Abroad
Regardless of where you are in the world, traveling challenges in unexpected ways. It’s how we deal with those challenges that make the difference between a successful or unsuccessful trip.
I’m in Tyumen, Russia, halfway around the world and twelve time zones away from my home in Chicago. Two months ago I’d barely even heard of this place and now here I am, wandering Tyumen’s frozen streets with my girlfriend and travel buddy, desperately trying to figure out how to get into our reserved accommodation to warm up. We need to figure this out because Tyumen isn’t much of a tourist city – foreigners need a reservation to stay at any but the most outrageously expensive hotel in town.
It’s not that we cant find the location – we’re standing at the exact corner where it should be. We went straight from the train station to the address listed on the booking website, but apparently there are only office buildings and residential apartments here. It’s too bad my phone doesn’t work. I suppose a working phone wouldn’t be of much help anyway. Before leaving Chicago I spent many hours learning how to read Cyrillic and the basics of the Russian language. It’s helped tremendously but by any measure my linguistic skills are still terrible. Also too bad is that it’s February, it’s Siberia, it’s 10 degrees F, and we’ve already been outside for an hour.
Let me just stop for a second because I know what you’re thinking: why on earth would you go to a random town in Siberia in February? And I answer that I wanted to come here for the same reason anyone goes anywhere new: curiosity. It’s the same reason people go to Paris or Amsterdam or the park down the street. I want to see and enjoy as much of this world as I can, and I want to share what I’ve seen with people who are equally curious but, for whatever reason, aren’t able to go there themselves. I’ve been to the park and I’ve been to Paris and now I’m somewhere new and fascinating and refreshingly challenging. We’re challenged in Tyumen now and I know that failing is not an option. We just need to figure out how to succeed.
I’m scratching my cold head on the street corner trying to figure this out. There’s no other way – I take a deep breath and we enter one of the offices. It’s an odd sight, a pair of foreign backpack toting travelers entering a business center full of working locals. At least it’s warm inside. “Guh-de-yeh? Ize deize?”, “Where? Here?”, I ask as I shrug and point to the address on the booking form. The locals are as confused as I am. “Wait here”, they tell me in English that’s as bad as my Russian and they start making phone calls on our behalf. Horray for friendly Siberians.
A short time later they return with an answer, but not one we’d hoped for: go to another street corner a mile up the road to find the office. They offer to call us a cab which we politely decline. They give us a map and wish us well as we begrudgingly return to Tyumen’s frigid streets, backpacks in tow, wondering just what sort of wild goose chase this is going to turn out to be.
We’re at the new street corner now and there is nothing but a few commercial buildings resembling something of a Siberian strip mall. There’s certainly no sign of an apartment rental office. Once again out of ideas, this time we’re out of warmth too. We need to get inside. But with winter’s daylight hours passing quickly and no viable alternate options, we can’t suspend working the problem. I take a glove off sacrificing what little warmth I have left, and I grab my phone and we walk from one coffee shop to the next until we find a place with wifi. Thank goodness for the internet.
Through an incredible combination of charades, Google Translate (via wifi), and Skype calls made by some of the most helpful people I’ve ever come across, the apartment office manager meets us at the coffee shop and personally leads us to her office. Turns out, the office was in fact on the strip mall street corner, on the 8th floor of a completely nondescript building. How anyone ever finds this place is totally beyond me, but then I suppose most guests are Russians who speak the language and have cell phones with service that works in Russia. We pay for the night’s stay and the manager drives us to the apartment which happens to be at the original spot where we had gone so many hours earlier. The apartment is spacious and beautiful aside from overlooking a large prison across the street. Not a big deal; we’re just happy to be inside. Problem solved and crises averted, we breathe a sigh of relief as we finally take off our backpacks and begin to warm up.
This isn’t just my story.
The situation and location were somewhat unique but the experience is a common one for travelers everywhere. It doesn’t have to be some random Siberian town in February. Maybe it’s your first trip to Europe or to the USA. Maybe it’s the family vacation to a tropical island. Maybe it actually is just that park down the street. No matter where you go, if you’ve never been there before you’re bound to be challenged. Being challenged is good, and overcoming the challenges of travel is a big part of why travel is so deeply rewarding. It’s not always easy, but here are some things I try to think about when I’m challenged in a new place:
Think worst case scenario. A travel challenge usually means you might lose some combination of time, money, and comfort. It’s not the end of the world so long as your saftey’s not in question. In our crazy Siberian adventure I always knew we could return to the train station to warm up, and perhaps buy onward tickets or even sleep there if need be. Uncomfortable and frustrating, but not unsafe.
Stay calm. There’s no need to get all riled up about anything. Think logically about what you can do to solve the problem. Maybe the locals can help. Maybe the answer can be found online. Figure out what you need to do to overcome the challenge and do it. A friend of mine was once pick pocketed in Barcelona minutes before leaving for the airport to fly home. Left with only two euros and his passport, he kept his cool and was able to make it back to his place in States using public transportation and relying on the kindness of strangers to get to and from the airports.
Try to enjoy it. Hey, you’re somewhere new and getting lost in a new place just means you’re seeing even more of it. Don’t forget to admire the sights even if nothing else seems to be going your way.
Have you been challenged while traveling? What did you do to overcome it? Share your stories by leaving a comment below!