10 Affordable Gifts for Travelers (All under $30!)

Hi Everyone,

Christmas is closing in! Are you doing some last minute shopping for friends? Need some good ideas for inexpensive but nice presents for the travelers in your lives? Here are ten things we love having and would recommend in a heartbeat. The links are mostly affiliate ones, so if you click on them (the pictures are the links, by the way), we stand to earn a few cents (which would be really nice, since who doesn’t like having a little bonus cash turn up now and then)? Naturally, you don’t have to pay a thing for clicking and exploring. Anyhow, without further ado, check it out.

10. Passport Covers. International traveling is fraught, so why make it harder than necessary to figure out whose passport is whose? Get a different color for everybody and no more hassles keeping track.  These are great stocking stuffers. The style options are truly endless:
 .

There are some fantastic handmade options on Etsy as well.

9. Travel Organizer. Ever get tired of trying to keep all the little things from getting lost in the bag? Enter Grid-It organizer. The elastics of different lengths allow you to create a variety of ways to store everything from a phone charger to a point-and-shoot camera to that pesky lip balm that keeps getting lost.
8. Wall Poster Maps. Every traveler loves maps. They make great gifts for lots of reasons,  not least of which it’s fun keeping track of where you’ve been and where you’re planning to go next. Plus a nice map on display at home makes for a both a nifty decoration and a fabulous conversation piece. One of our favorites is this entertaining scratch-off map.

7. Samsonite Backpack. We’re big fans of Samsonite luggage, thanks to high quality and solid warranties. Keep it affordable with a Classic PFT checkpoint friendly backpack; not only is this pack inexpensive and durable, it’s styled in a simple, elegant fashion, and is quite compact (which makes it a great daypack) while offering lots of ways to organize your things. The laptop compartment makes it a snap to pull out your MacBook when you’re hurrying through airport security.

6. A VPN Subscription. Express VPN is the best choice for anyone who will be going to China (and would be perfect anywhere else that the internet is restricted, too). How else can you guarantee you’ll be able to use Skype, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook? Also, VPNs make it so you can access the same streaming video services you’d use back home, which otherwise aren’t necessarily available outside of the USA.

5. Travel Journal. Travel journals can be had in all forms and varieties these days. If you can hardly cram in time to jot down any notes or otherwise chronicle your travels, maybe thanks to your adorable little ones, try one of these:

If you are a fan of lists, check out the Listography one:

And then there’s the good old Moleskine:


4. Universal Travel Adapter. These are as convenient as they claim to be. They’re a great gift for international travelers, as pretty much all your bases are covered.

3. Solid shampoo and conditioner. If, like us, you tend to travel with carry-on only and packing those tiny bottles of liquids has gotten to you, do consider solid shampoo and conditioner. We swear by the ones Lush makes.

2. Snap tray. This little tray folds down flat and takes virtually no space in your bag. We bring it with us whenever we’re traveling for a longer period of time. It helps keep things organized and adds a bit of homeyness to wherever we are.

1. A power bank/portable charger. We have come to rely on our phones so much these days, what with lack of paper maps and such, that a dead battery can cause some serious stress. Give yourself some peace of mind. Just remember to charge the charger!

There you have it! Hope this helps give you some ideas. As always, let us know what you think. Are there other things you’d include on a list of sub-$30 gifts for travelers you know?

Advertisements

Ten Must-Have Gifts for Traveling Families

Hi Everyone,

Jenia and I were sitting down and browsing through some random lists of “must-have gifts” for the Christmas season a couple days ago (it was a rare moment when the kids were both asleep). We saw lots of really expensive stuff, and lots of silly things that nobody really needs. So what would we recommend for families who love to travel? Not that anyone has actually asked, but here we go–we’ve found each of these things incredibly nice to own as we’ve been exploring the world with our kids for the last five years. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we’d consider then must-haves. The most expensive thing on the list is about $150, and the least is only a few bucks. Some of the links are affiliate links, which won’t cost you anything to you click on, but could make us a few pennies, and others aren’t. All the pictures are links.

10-must-have-gifts-for-traveling-families

10. Boba Air baby carrier. Who wants to cart a stroller around everywhere they go, especially if international travel is in the cards? A carrier makes packing for big trips, not to mention navigating in airports, much easier. Why is the Boba Air on our list of must-haves, though, instead of some other brand? Well, because not all baby carriers are created equal. Boba makes a great product which they stand behind with fantastic customer service and an outstanding warranty. The Air is the lightest, handiest of their products, weighing practically nothing, and it collapses and zips into a self-contained bag the size of a ladies’ clutch. It can go anywhere easily, and it makes toting the tiny one as convenient as can be.

Our Boba Air has been to over 24 countries, simplifying our lives greatly. For a child over 2, however, you’ll need something stouter. See number 9.

9. Tula Toddler carrier. The Tula Toddler will accommodate a toddler weighing between 25 and 60 lbs (11-27 kg) in comfort, and it offers good padding for the parents’ shoulders, as well. Our 4.5-year-old still enjoys an occasional ride in his Tula. These carriers come in a variety of colors and patterns and maintain their value like crazy.

8. Trunki Boost-A-Pak. The Trunki is a backpack which doubles as a booster seat for kids weighing between 33 and 88 lbs (15-36kg). It’s the perfect solution for families with little ones who are out of baby seats, but who still need a booster. There is a surprising amount of space inside, meaning your child can help carry part of the load, and when it comes time to catch a cab, it converts into a booster seat in a flash. There is a built-in seatbelt regulator.

7. Cloth high chair attachment. Quirky, but oh-so-helpful in those off-the-beaten-path eateries that have no high chairs. Light, simple, and useful. What’s not to like?

6. Silicone cups, straws, bowls, and covers. Practically indestructible, these can be washed and taken anywhere. We are particularly fond of these straws (they are wide enough for smoothies and come apart for easy washing)

and these cup lids (they fit virtually any cup thanks to the 3 different rings on the inside that stretch/grip the cup’s rim)


5. Water bottles: come on, they’re useful. How about this funky collapsible one?
It consumes no space when empty, making it a nice choice for dropping into a small day pack.

As for traditional water bottles, we are a Contigo family 🙂

Jenia loves the Addison bottles:

Shon prefers the Grace bottle:

and the kids drink from the Gizmos: 

4. City Maps 2 Go. Pay for it and download maps that can be used offline.

3. iPad dongle. Sounds silly, but this means that photographer in your life can download pictures from the SLR to the iPad, and he or she no longer needs to lug the laptop around.

2. Non-tangle headphones, plus a headphone splitter. Some airlines don’t even provide headphones anymore, so a good pair of quality headphones is a solid choice for anyone flying. The splitter means anyone can share a viewing or listening experience easily.

1. Toys & Games. The possibilities are endless. For toddlers, we always recommend Water Wow! (reusable water-painting activity pads that come with a brush) or a handmade I Spy game. For older kids (and their parents), looks into these:

If you pack light, Memory game and the Magnetibook may be too large but they are great for road trips.

There you have it. Let us know if you agree that these are great items for families and what things you would consider for your list of must-haves.

About Visiting Hong Kong

As we’ve rhapsodized about before, we love having friends the world over as a result of living and working abroad. Last week was one of China’s Golden Week holidays–a time when holidays coincide to allow an entire week off from work. We called up a friend (okay, we didn’t even do that, we just used Facebook messenger to get in touch) who lives in Hong Kong, a mere 30 miles away. This is a pal we met while working in Russia. She now resides in Hong Kong, and it seemed like the Golden Week might allow us the chance to get together. As it happened, though, she already had travel plans. So when she went on vacation to Japan, she set us up for the week in her lovely studio apartment.

#HongKong #MyView #RandTravels

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

This meant we had a chance to explore Asia’s world city in a whole different manner than we’d have done if we stayed in a hotel.

Here’s the funny thing–after a week there, neither of us were blown away. We’d expected a place significantly different from Shenzhen. Don’t get me wrong; in Hong Kong you’re less likely to see a toddler popping a squat beside the road, but I did witness a kid taking a leak into a bottle his mom was holding while we visited a children’s science museum. There are signs posted all over the city forbidding spitting and littering, as well as stipulating mandatory fines for those behaviors. Indeed, before arriving in China, I’d heard horror stories about mainland Chinese people constantly spitting everywhere–and that maybe true of second tier cities, but I’ve only seen a few people hock up loogies during the seven weeks I’ve been in Shenzhen. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s not a big problem I’ve encountered. Now, was HK cleaner? Maybe somewhat, but there was still plenty of grunge. In actuality, there are parts of Shenzhen which are cleaner (as well as dirtier, to be fair). Shenzhen shines in some respects, and even compares well to its much more famous neighbor. Let’s take the subway system, for example. SZ’s is nicer–cleaner, larger, better illuminated. While HK has a truly admirable network of public transportation, the electric buses in SZ are much quieter and represent a significant contribution to Shenzhen’s urban environment.

One of our friends here described Hong Kong as “China with a veneer of money,” if I recall his turn of phrase correctly. That’s accurate, although not everyplace in HK is wealthy. Regardless, HK represents a more picturesque place to spend time in than Shenzhen, with stunning cityscapes visible from Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbor.

It’s a big city, so there’s a ton of people. And with tons of people come huge crowds. Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to get away from the crowds. But then, that’s the same in Shenzhen. Now and again, popular places just get too packed for comfort.

We made a day trip to Repulse Bay, and found ourselves on a nice beach with pleasant scenery. It was relatively uncrowded, although there were bunches of people, often Filipinas enjoying themselves very loudly, occupying all the patches of shade. That was fine with us, as getting some sun is part of the reason we like going to the beach, but getting a tan is anathema to most folks occupying this neck of the woods. It was interesting watching the people and groups. There was a church conducting baptisms and singing praise and worship tunes. There was a 60 year old American man and his brother with a gorgeous 25 year old woman of Asian lineage (she was probably American, too, going by her accent) popping the cork out of a bottle of champagne. There were myriad women dressed up and striking poses while their spouses or friends snapped pictures, each doing their best to look like a model. And it must be said, the water was perfect for swimming.

During our days exploring via the cheap and fabulous Star Ferry, the famously creaky double decker trams, and also on buses and our own feet, we covered quite a bit of territory. For the most part, we took in all the touristy things on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, while skipping Lantau Island, since we can get there easily enough another time. One day we walked more than 7 miles, and others we covered 5 plus. That was tiring, since Hong Kong Island is something like San Francisco in the sense that it is very hilly. In fact, there are even a series of outdoor escalators to help make life easier. The sidewalks are also there one minute, and all but gone another, depending on where you happen to wander, which makes life interesting.

#RepulseBay

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

#VictoriaHarbour #HongKong #StarFerry #Skyline #Cityscape #HK #myhongkong #China

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

#thetravelingzoo says "hello" from #hongkong #365 #lifewithkids #travel

A post shared by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

Some things we enjoyed seeing included Hong Kong Park, nearby the hugely popular Victoria Peak Tram (pro tip–go before 9:00 am), and the Zoological Park, which had a lot of monkeys who were very animated–except the humongous orangutans, who were more interested in lounging around with head coverings they’d fashioned from leaves than anything else. We found some of the temples, including Man Mo (which is in the process of being refurbished, by the way) interesting. Man Mo, for example, is named for two gods–the god of literature and the god of war. The customs observed by worshippers inside are very similar to those we observed when we visited a local Buddhist temple in Shenzhen (incense being burned, respect being paid, food and drink sacrifices being offered).

Lots of #steps lead toward #VictoriaHarbour

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Here’s something we learned about traveling to HK from SZ–it’s necessary to fill out an immigration card when leaving China (yes, HK is part of China, but it’s treated as if it isn’t), and there weren’t any signs or forms to indicate that. So if you’re waiting in line to leave China and there aren’t any immigration forms at hand, go to an immigration officer and get some. It’ll save 10 or 15 minutes and the necessity to step out of the queue, because they want the forms all filled out before you get to the desk. Hong Kong wants forms, too, and they give you a little 1-inch square piece of paper with a stamp on it you’ve got to keep, too, so that’s a slight annoyance, ’cause man, it’d be easy to lose.

Make friends, visit them, or at least visit their apartments. Build some good relationships with fine people and enjoy their hospitality when the opportunity arises. It is something which helps develop and expand horizons, and it also can provide entirely new options for exploring the world.

 

 

 

Exploring Shenzhen’s Nanshan Neighborhood: Tang Lang Mountain

Today my 4 year old son and I hiked a mountain. That is, we walked on a nicely paved road and granite stairs. Tang Lang Mountain overlooks our residence, and it’s been beckoning me since we arrived. Since Jenia won’t be talked into scaling its heights, such as they are, I dragged my boy along instead. Wowzers! We left at 9 in the morning and got back after noon. By then, my shirt was soaked and so were my shorts–soaked with sweat and nothing else!

Typhoon Hato caused, according to today’s headlines, no major damage when it came through yesterday. The threat of serious damage was enough to lead to school cancellations and the like. What we ended up with, however, was lots of broken tree branches and that is about it.

When we headed out on foot this morning, it was humid and there were many maintenance people out and about cleaning the sidewalks with straw brooms. They were sweeping leaves and other debris into piles along the sidewalks. It’s only a couple of blocks to Tang Lang Mountain, and there were lots of people cleaning up there, too. If you’ve worked in the UAE, you might have heard a couple of jokes about how dish washer and street sweeper aren’t appliances or what have you, but are actually careers–that might fit this area too. There were lots of guys (and ladies) out there sweeping the curving road along Tang Lang (which is, by the way, restricted to pedestrian traffic except for a few odd autos) with brooms. It’s got to be hard work in this heat.

Making the hike wasn’t easy. I’m told there are actually trails along Tang Lang, but I didn’t notice them. I did see sections of stairway, and those were too inviting to pass up. Going up the stairways is hard, I admit. Coming down them isn’t at all bad, however.

Since I had a 4 year old in tow, I had snacks and water for the trip. Those were magic–whenever things seemed too hard, a treat showed up, a pause along the way ensued and strength to continue was summoned forth.

We were rewarded for our climbing prowess (or rather, our hard fought tenacity) with splendid views out over Shenzhen and the bay. This is quite a place.

Should I mention the mosquitoes which enjoy the shadier places we found? Nah. Let’s just say the attraction was not mutual.

By the time we returned, dripping with sweat, Jenia was wondering if we were in fact coming back, and we were both ready to be off our tired feet. Traveling by foot with a four year old isn’t a particularly speedy proposition, and we’d also stopped at a shop to purchase a couple drinks on our way back, our water supply having dwindled. Notably, I recognized when the clerk said “Seven quid” in Chinese! It was a proud little moment! (I only just learned how to say seven yesterday, you see).

Days like this hot one really drive home how far we are from…well, home. Climbing the mountain provided a different view of the city, quite literally, and helped me feel like I am actually exploring the area. Tang Lang Mountain’s network of trails offer a little respite from the constant noises of city life. It’d be easy to forget that there are 15,000,000 souls not far off, were I not so unaccustomed to the area. It must be said that lush Shenzhen is nothing like rural Georgia, and even less similar to arid Utah. I look forward to my next hike.

Moving to Shenzhen, pt. 1: of authenticating, emailing, and waiting.

We're moving to China in the fall! International adventure, here we come! We have been surprised how much we miss traveling overseas–after all, the last year has seen us move cross country, make road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, and explore a fair bit of Utah. Living and traveling in a different country simply stimulates the adventure gland in a way that exploring at home doesn't. Thus, when the chance to work overseas came again, we were happy to take it.

Here's what is going on with our move. After I, Shon, accepted the position in Shenzhen, I had to e-mail a variety of documents to the school's Human Resources department. Those include some obvious ones like a CV and letters of reference, but also some which aren't so typical for your average USA job. Those include copies of passports for the whole family, marriage and birth certificates, a criminal background check (normal for a teacher, after all), medical checkup forms, and a copy of my highest college degree. Oh, plus notarized Chinese translations of the marriage and birth certificates. And a signed statement that I'll abide by Chinese laws and be a decent person. A number of those documents have to be authenticated, as well.

We learned back in 2012 how to go about authenticating documents. Here's the process. First, we take original documents (in the case of the degree, my notary made a photocopy and then indicated that it was a copy of the original) and have them notarized by local officials. The next step in the process is to take the notarized copy (in the case of the degree) to the county Clerk of Court and have that person indicate that the notary is, in fact, legitimate, and sign and seal this statement. Now that document goes to the State Capitol, where the Secretary of State applies the State Seal. After that, the document is then ready to go to Washington, D.C., where it is again stamped by the US Secretary of State. After all that, it has to go to the Embassy of whatever country (the UAE in 2012, China this year) where the document gets its final stamp. The local step is usually free; the state level costs a little bit (usually $10), and the national level costs more. The Embassy charges, too. Since we don't live anywhere near Washington, D.C., we use a courier service (ProEx, the same one we used before) to tote our documents from one place to another, which greatly reduces the amount of time it takes for everything to be completed. As you might imagine, all those fees add up.

Oh, and yeah, we've had to get things re-authenticated, because the Chinese Embassy requires documents to be freshly done–it didn't matter that we'd already had this done five years ago and could furnish those proven documents. In the case of the criminal background check, I must admit that this makes sense, but as for the other documents, well, it seems like a simple way to generate revenue, doesn't it? However, be that as it may, having things authenticated again is necessary, so we bit the bullet and did everything over again. I say "did," but I mean "are doing," as we are still waiting for documents to return from D.C.

Here's a list of the documents that we're having authenticated, as well as the way those fees add up.

-Local and state level notarizations for marriage certificate and background check: $40 (approximate; I forgot how much my background check cost to obtain)
-DC notarization & authentication of degree $70.00;
-US Dept. of State authentication of 3 documents $24.00;
-Embassy of China legalization of 5 documents $125.00;
-ProEx service fee and FedEx shipping: $205.

Grand total: $464. Not at all cheap, right? Like I said, though, that's just how it is. While we're on the topic of money, if you add in the $120 fee for notarized translations, we've got a total of $584. That $120 was a marvelous bargain, by the way. Ah, and I seem to have forgotten that it cost money to mail our stuff to ProEx, too–that was around $40.  So we're well over the $600 mark.

What will happen next is that we send scans of all this stuff along with previously e-mailed documents to HR in China. Then the Shenzhen government will issue an official invitation letter, and I will take that letter to the Chinese Embassy along with our passports, and apply for a work visa. At least, that's the basics of it.

We'll have to DHL a few original documents to China, too, which is interesting. Regarding the other documents, we'll have to take all the originals along when we relocate.

At this point, we simply wait for paperwork to be finished up in order that we may continue the process I outlined above. None of it is really that hard. It can, however, be stressful, and that tends to be compounded by the bureaucratic hassle (this sort of paperwork epitomizes bureaucracy, with requirements being very specific, even for reference letters) and expectations that are sometimes unclear with HR. So, we mutter in exasperation, shrug the shoulders, and do things again. During the waiting, I've actually had plenty of things to do–emailing things already emailed, for example; obtaining letters of reference with wording in just such a fashion conforming to particular guidelines, and so forth. Who ever said waiting around is boring?

 

 

Russia: Underrated Teaching Location?

Note: Moscow at one point earned the title of World’s Most Expensive City; that’s no longer the case, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than Kazan. The information herein relates to our experiences in Kazan, rather than Russia’s huge capital.

Russia–what a storied place. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Leningrad, multi-hewed onion domes atop brick towers, Red Square. Having had time to reflect on our year in Russia, a few things really stand out about the experience.

First and foremost, it’s a country that can aptly be described as Second World. Google the phrase and you’ll find that it refers to the former Soviet countries (and a handful of others). While the term Second World is a relic of a bygone era of Cold War, it is still used to describe a country’s level of development–between underdeveloped (Third World) and developed (First World). Perhaps we’d be better off using the phrase “developing” instead of Second World. At any rate, whether we call it Second World or developing, sometimes Russia is as modern and wonderful as can be–spacious new apartment complexes, glittering towers, high speed internet, glamorous German sedans, and all the luxury you might imagine of a country that, as some say, is experiencing a type of resurgence. And yet, those glamorous Teutonic cruisers zoom over potholed pavement, suspension slamming against the stops in a most unglamorous fashion, and despite blazing quick internet, the hot water quits working for days at a time whilst undergoing yet another round of maintenance and repairs. The fancy apartment complex’s landscaping consists of tires as planters, poorly pruned trees and helter-skelter shrubberies. The newly paved parking lot has a section ripped up and poorly repaved scarcely a week after being finished. The parking garages in this complex have never even opened because they are both a terrible deal–one has to pay extra to park in them, as opposed to simply parking on the street level–and also because they are dreadfully constructed. Consequently, navigating through the overcrowded street level parking lot is sometimes impossible.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Oct 25, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT

 

It would seem #winter is ending.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24am PST

 

Second, it’s an inexpensive place to live, assuming that one makes an otherwise competitive Western salary. While it would be classless to share how much I was making, it was in line with a typical IB/international school salary, and included the usual benefits for those sorts of jobs. Suffice it to say that we were able to send up to 70% of our money home monthly. Cab fare using Tap Taxi would run around $2-3 for a typical middle-length ride (Kazan is cheap compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, by the way), and while eating out could be as expensive as anywhere else if we didn’t use some discretion, we found fantastic delivery sushi, and groceries were inexpensive. During August and September, the fruits and vegetables were surprisingly fresh and delicious. We had trouble finding decent cheeses, though, and settled on Cheese Gallery offerings as usually tasting best. Home DSL internet is inexpensive. Mobile phone service is marvelously affordable–we paid around $3 a month for our MTS internet-equipped phone plans, for instance. A month’s expenses for water, gas, and electricity, as well as whatever fees the apartment complex included, cost around 5,000 rubles (the ruble hovered around 60 to a dollar while we were there).

By some measures, then, teaching in Russia is a great experience. Financially, it was very good for us. Other things made it hard, though. There’s virtually no English spoken on the street (even though some road signs feature both languages), making exploring more of a challenge. Of course, that also helps one be motivated to learn some Russian, and acquiring a foreign language is no small feat.

What about teaching itself? There is a range of opportunity available for an American to teach English. Language schools are one option, although they are basically their own animals as compared to public or private schools. I was able to get a job working at an international school, which, we shall wait and see, may help open doors to other international schools in the future. The school I worked for was brand new, and had its share of growing pains, which made the work environment a bit more difficult than it probably would have been if the school had been established for a while (there’s a good lesson, I think; find a school that’s been around for long enough to be stable, with administrators who have plenty of experience in their roles). In most ways, the work place was nice–it must be said that the new building was generally world-class; having meals (they even accommodated my vegetarianism happily) provided was super convenient; and having transportation to and from work included was a definite perk.

Coming out of the Emirates, I found Russian students to be much easier to work with than the over-privileged Emirati youth, and that was a welcome improvement. Also coming out of the Emirates, the long work days (7:45-4:45) were not a pleasant adjustment, and seriously ate into my quality of family life, while also making it harder to fit routine things like going to the gym into my schedule.

As was the case in the Emirates, and as is usual of international schools and many teaching jobs abroad, living quarters were included as part of the salary package, and the apartment we had was nice and plenty roomy. The location in the Sun City area wasn’t very convenient, which meant we relied heavily on taxis to get around (we could travel by bus, but it took forever and a day), but as I said before, taxi fare is cheap in Kazan, so that was alright. Of course, Russian taxi men are a mixed bag, and you might get a jovial driver one day, and a horrendous jerk the next. Uber has made its way to Kazan, by the way, but I never had any luck finding a car with Uber.

Everyone always asks about the weather. In short, the temperatures only got extremely cold for about a month around January, and only about 2 weeks were truly frigid (-25 c or more). August sucked–it was cold and dreary, but September was made great by Indian Summer–beautiful and clear–and snow fell and stuck from October. In general, after that, winter arrived and it was an overcast crap fest with terribly short days, especially in December, making the arrival of spring and frequent blue skies most welcome around April. May was okay, and June quite nice.

There isn’t much of an expat scene in Kazan. “Single women we knew had a particularly hard time making any kind of connections outside of work,” Jenia says. There are a few small gatherings, there’s a little Western church homegroup that meets regularly, and with coworkers at the school, we had a bit of a social life, but nothing like the thriving one that we experience in Abu Dhabi. But then, as our world-traveling fellow expat-teacher friends the Casales once observed, it is incredibly easy to live in the UAE as an expat. Russia, or at least Kazan (Moscow and St. Petersburg have larger expat populations), doesn’t make it easy to be an expat, although as I said, that does have some benefits, including making it easier or at least more necessary to acquire some language skills. There are lots of events going on, though, with concerts, sports events, and more happening frequently, if one can just navigate enough Russian to figure them out (a task much easier these days with the mind-blowing Google Translate app).

Travel within Russia is inexpensive. We’d recommend visiting the Caucasus–it’s drastically different from the plains which dominate the rest of the Russian landscape.

#Dombay #Russia #Caucasus #caucasusmountains #skiresort

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Apr 3, 2016 at 2:41am PDT

A final observation is what Jenia calls spotty but inexpensive healthcare. There was only one hospital in all of Kazan, with its 1.2 million people, willing to allow me into the delivery room when our youngest was born, for example. This private hospital, Ava Kazan, did generally offer a Western level experience. “It differed dramatically from doctor to doctor,” Jenia says.  Ava had English-speaking staff, too, which was great, but even they couldn’t get Western-made vaccines (Russian ones don’t have a very good reputation).

Where we spent the last couple of days. #Kazan #россия

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Nov 28, 2015 at 1:02am PST

 

So is Russia an underrated teaching destination? In some ways, probably so. If you value a place where your dollars stretch a long way, then Kazan is certainly a place where they do. If you don’t need to be surrounded by a large community of Westerners, and if you value the chance to be immersed in Russian (and in the case of Kazan, Tartar) culture, then it’s a neat place to spend some time. So find an established school with experienced leadership, and give it a shot.

Leaving Russia

In 3 hours we’ll be off the ground, heading to America.

Our year in Russia has been in some ways wonderful, and in other ways, very challenging.

Let’s start with a wonderful thing: we moved here with, and I worked alongside, two sets of friends we met in Al Ain. This year we got to spend lots of time together, and it was great to develop our friendships further.

Here’s a challenge: because of her Russian citizenship, Jenia had a bunch of hassles and hoops to jump through relating to renewing passports and getting one for our November-born baby. That was made harder (to the tune of 6 trips to Ryazan, a 9-hour ordeal) by the school I worked for. How is that possible? Well, Russia has some byzantine paperwork requirements for its citizens, and one of them involves registering in a new city when you move there. My employers somehow couldn’t manage to register my wife, despite more than one promise to do so, which meant she had to travel to Ryazan to handle the paperwork. That was a royal pain. Similarly, since the new baby was given Russian citizenship because her mom is Russian, we had some hassles involving her passport.

Wonderful: teaching Russian kids, after spending a few years in the Emirates, was a delight. Generally, the students apply themselves, and that’s unsurprisingly much more rewarding than trying to instruct unmotivated Emirati boys.

Here’s a second wonderful: shoe condoms and poplar snow. Wonderfully weird, that is. And the shoe covers are more of an annoyance than a good thing, but they’re so delightfully Russian that you have to appreciate them. Poplar snow seems to happen mostly at the beginning of June, when poplar trees spread their fluffy white seeds everywhere the wind will blow them. It’s kind of similar to shoe covers–incredibly annoying, yet also so unique you gotta love it.

IMG_1840

A tiny little bit of poplar snow

A challenge: dealing with a new school and inexperienced leaders therein. You can imagine how daunting setting up an educational institution is, can’t you? There are lots of expectations and it’s hard to hit them all dead center, no doubt about it. However, establishing clear goals and quality communication with experienced leaders at the helm would go a long way toward helping things get up and running without much problem. I say “would,” because that was not the case here. Everyone, except, for the most part, teachers, were doing their jobs for the first time. That was hard. Lesson learned: if you’re heading to a new educational institution, make sure you’re working for folks who know what they’re doing.

Here’s another challenge: midwinter. The sun set before 3pm, and many days it didn’t really come out to shine. Depression city.

Wonderful: seasons. You miss those when you’re in what amounts to year-round summer in the UAE for a few years. And summer in Kazan is really beautiful. Also, since we’re talking seasons, who can’t appreciate a good 3am sunrise?

Challenge: cultural expectations. This is one complication an expat faces almost anywhere–Russia is a different place from the States after all, and even though on the surface Russian culture is similar to that of Western nations, one must only scrape a layer or two to realize that there are lots of little differences. Widespread superstitions and adherence to puzzling traditions (could this just be due to ignorance?) are among these differences. Here are some examples of superstitions we’ve encountered: knocking on wood (familiar, right?) or saying “tfu tfu tfu” after a compliment, not shaking hands over a threshold, not accepting money in your hand at night, to name a few. Jenia can tell you more. As for puzzling traditions/ignorance, I had a mother tell me she didn’t want her child to sit on the bench outside during the winter because she wanted grandchildren one day. For the same reason, girls weren’t allowed to sit on the concrete. Yep, educated adults seriously think their kids will have reproductive issues because of sitting on cold surfaces. I’m telling you, lady, if your kid has gotten so cold that his reproductive system has frozen, then you won’t have to worry about having grandkids, you’ll have to think about replacing your child. Sheesh.

Wonderful: cost of living, assuming you are being paid on a competitive Western rate, is incredibly low. For example, we paid about 200 rubles a month, each, for our prepaid cell phone service, which included data. At current exchange rates, that’s about $3.50. A taxi ride across Kazan, reservations made using the wonderful Tap Taxi app, would usually set us back about 250 rubles, depending of course on where we were going. Hopping the bus costs 25 rubles. Food is similarly inexpensive. Brand name clothing and shoes, on the other hand, are similarly priced to the USA, and by comparison to other things, are very expensive. It’s been a really good year for saving money.

Oh, and I can’t forget to list another wonderful thing: learning Russian. My Russian is low, but I’ve learned a lot. Turtle, on the other hand, has really become a fluent speaker, and that’s fantastic.

So as we’re leaving, it’s obvious that we’ve had a year full of experiences both delightful and aggravating. And while it can be easy to focus on the things which are difficult, I think the year has been worthwhile. At any rate, it is over.

 

 

Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

rt_sochi_map_jtm_140128_16x9t_384

A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

caucasus-map_a6d4c703

Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

The Latest

I’ve seen blogs that languish as their authors lose interest, and it’s sort of a sad thing. The posts get sporadic, and then, with no explanation at all, the writers simply stop updating. When that happens it’s like a story has been interrupted in the middle. It’s like you’re watching TV and the channel suddenly cuts off and won’t come back. I’m always left wondering what has happened to those authors who wrote about their interesting lives–what happened? What did they stop writing for? Did things go badly for them? Inevitably, I find myself hoping for the best–that they quit writing because life simply got too busy, too full of goodness–not that they dropped the virtual pen because they had some tragedy strike, or because everything went sideways, or etc.

As for this blog, it’s languished a bit because it’s been really hard to find time to update. When we write we like to share things we find insightful or memorable for some reason, besides the odd bit about teaching abroad. We like to write about good things, because the world is chock-full of negativity. With the new baby, we simply haven’t had time to sit down and do much writing. We find as a family of four that there aren’t enough hours in the day anymore. And, really, sometimes it’s hard to find good things to write about, too, when life is in something of a rut–not necessarily a nasty place, but nothing remarkable, either.

Somewhere in Mundaneville, Regulartown, USA, one of our readers is chuckling, imagining life in Kazan, Russia, as pretty unremarkable. He is grinning and saying, “You’re living an adventure, and you think you’re in a rut.” And, dear reader, if you’re the one laughing, you are partly right. Sometimes I pause as I’m walking through the birches and think to myself, “Hey, I’m in Russia, the former USSR, and I was just speaking Russian with a random guy–I’m living a kind of dream;” and that’s all fine and good, but I’m reminded that wherever we travel to, people live more or less the same kinds of lives, observing pretty similar daily routines, not much different from those of anywhere else, except perhaps in location.

So what really is new for us? Well, we’re finishing up the school year at the end of June and packing our bags for someplace new. I was offered a contract for a two year position here in town, but decided it would be best to move on and explore more of the world. Where to next? Stay tuned:)

A Top 10 List: What’s Surprising?

Having been to Russia a few times, Ukraine once, and other Eastern European nations, I don’t always notice the things a newcomer would. I don’t even find things that once surprised me remarkable, tending to forget, instead, that anyone might actually be interested in reading about them. Yet, undoubtedly, there’s quite a few quirks one has to adjust to in this sprawling, chilly land. Here’s a selection of unusual things you might encounter on a daily basis in this neck of the woods.

  1. Trees wearing white paint. Actually, I think it’s lime. The purpose? Er, I don’t know.
  2. Toilets which you can’t flush toilet paper down, along with a little trashcan sitting nearby for your used tissue. Only problematic if there’s no waste basket nearby.
    IMG_9724

    No basket. Problem?

    3. Shopping centers, train stations, and other large foot-traffic areas with only a few of their many doors unlocked and open. Typically requires you to zig-zag. Let the cursing ensue.

4.  Heating cranked up indoors. This is a cool weather thing, of course, not  a summer time issue. Only surprising when you realize that there’s no control over said heating in your apartment, except maybe to disable it altogether.

5. Heating cranked up in public transportation. All modes. Taxis, buses, you name it. Sweat much?

6. No lawn mowers. Who cares for the many shabby, overgrown outdoor spaces around apartment buildings and alongside secondary streets? Nobody, it appears, except for on rare special occasions.

7. Early sunrise and late sunset in summer. This is a product of latitude, of course.

8. Late sunrise and early sunset in winter. Nothing makes you want to stay in bed more than the sun staying away.

9. Price tags for ordinary goods with numbers in the thousands. Generally goods aren’t too pricey, but you’ll do a double take as you remind yourself of the exchange rate.

10. Soup, sour cream, and cabbage are ubiquitous. “I can’t imagine a day without having soup,” a guy told me a couple weeks ago. Of course, the soups here are good, so why not have ’em regularly?