Holed up in Novgorod

I’m lying in bed at the Hotel Akron in Novgorod, carefully sipping tea, stealing WiFi from somewhere. I *should* be 100 km away, in Staraya Russa, the village where Dostoevsky wrote his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The blinds are drawn against the bright sun outside, and I’ve got the “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the doorknob.

You guessed it: I’m sick. It came on suddenly last night. One minute I was fine, the next minute I could barely swallow and my head was all stuffy. So I decided to stay an extra day in my quiet, private room and sleep it off.

I suspect my illness is a strain of swine flu. No, not from proximity to any Mexican porcus maximus, but from the repulsive fellow travelers with whom I lived in close quarters at the Cuba Hostel in St. Petersburg. It was like living in a frat house. They spilled beer on the dorm room floor and didn’t clean it up. They pissed on the bathroom floor. They noisily and with great gusto hocked up loogies. And worst of all, they messily expelled the contents of their noses into the two shared sinks, where we all were meant to brush our teeth and wash our faces.  I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

So now, beyond trying to recuperate quickly, I’m stuck with a dilemma. Accommodation in Russia – in cities as well as the far-flung countryside – is more expensive than I suspected. (I had been planning on a total budget of around $50/day.) Accommodation expense can be partially counteracted by staying in hostels instead of the cheapie hotels – a dorm bed costs about $20, whereas it’s hard to find a private room for less than $40. On the whole, I’d much rather spend my money on activities, sampling local cuisine, and other experiences.

But I long ago decided that personally I was beyond the sharing of bathroom facilities with 6 or 8 or 10 strangers. I was willing to pay a bit more per night for a private room with (more importantly) private bath. I don’t need anything at all fancy – no need for AC, TV, fridge, etc. – just a clean place.

And my four nights at the Cuba Hostel confirmed this for me. Either that hostel was full of the rudest, most disgusting travelers, or my standards for what’s acceptible have changed.

(On a personal historical note: I can’t help but remember the look on my sister’s face when she saw the house I shared with three Phish-head fellow students my last semester at Lehigh. Where she saw squalor, I saw a comfortable, yet admittedly grungy, environment. So maybe I have changed.)

Anyway…I’ll still experiment by trying out another hostel or two while I’m here. But I’m also boosting my daily budget and cutting back on restaurant eating (the food’s not much worth it anyway) and other “luxuries.” I figure I can make up any extra dough I spend in SE Asia, where it’s easy to live cheap.


All this brings up a deeper point. What the hell am I doing here? This is the first trip I’ve taken where ostensibly I’m seeking out material to write about. I’m not quite sure how to do this – do I actively seek out stories, or do I just follow my nose, trust my instincts, and let the stories happen? Each option has its merits, but it’s an adjustment. All of a sudden, hiring a guide or taking a guided tour in English – something I never would have spent money on in the past – might have real benefits. I suppose I’ll let curiousity be my guide…

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