Russia is nothing like what you expect it to be. Just the word “Siberia” elicits an image of a frozen barren wasteland, fit for nothing but labor camps and tundra. But I am here to tell you that Russia is so much more. It is history. It is beautiful buildings, and nature (not unlike the ones in these photos). It is a once in a lifetime experience. Welcome to the Russian Federation, where learning about yourself competes with learning about one of the oldest countries in the world.
If you want me to be completely frank with you, we were terrified that we were going to starve to death about 3 days into our adventure. Moscow is filled with fast talking Russians, and during our first dining experience we had to resort to pointing at the menu to order. The portions were small, and Americanized. We left the restaurant hungry and defeated. We were here for 8 weeks. What in heaven’s name had we done.St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
And then we arrived in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia and it got better. We were eating real Russian food, and speaking with real Russians, and living like real Russian students. I learned that I can adapt to nearly any situation—whether that included trying mystery meat that my host dad was feeding me, or fracturing my ankle and having to speak Russian to get x-rayed at a local clinic. I did it all, and the experience made me fearless in other endeavors. If I could adapt to the situations that Mother Russia threw at me, I can do anything.
Me, Standing in front of Comunalniy Bridge, Krasnoyarsk, Russia
I did not just learn about myself. I learned a lot about Russians being more than a distant people mentioned in textbooks about the Cold War as well. Russians are kind, and generous. My Russian mother was fiercely protective and caring of her family, and me. My host family was constantly trying to stuff me with delicious food, and a friend of mine on the program was sent home with literally 10 pounds of cedar nuts as a present from her host-mom to her real mom. The legendary cold of Siberia has not made a permanent mark on Russians outlook.
They are kind, sincere people.
A group of us in the forrest near Lake Baikal, outside of Irkutsk, Russia
The group, posing near the Yenesei and “Whale Fish” Near the end of the program. Krasnoyarsk, Russia
And so, we as a group went from surviving to thriving. We laughed about our “What am I doing here?” moments, and we cried when we left our host families. For two months we lived as strangers in a strange land, but I know I came home with love and pride for eastern culture, and the ability to adapt that will serve me the rest of my life.