The frame of mind needed for backpacking isn’t calibrated to place, but to time. When you’re not sleeping, you’re going, somewhere, anywhere that will have you. Consequently, the eyes of a backpacker are never quite the same as those people who carry purses or briefcases, people I enjoy calling Plants – rooted, sedentary people (these are not inherent lifelong traits, but rather a state of being. I’m a Plant right now in Washington DC, for example). Consequently, you see the world differently as a backpacker, as an Animal whose vision is so sporadic and fast-changing, constantly adjusting and focusing on ephemeral stimuli, that everywhere you go becomes one large and beautiful blur. It’s difficult to get the full picture when you’re on a steady, weighted run, whereas Plants enjoy consistency, thoroughness, depth, and lightness.
In 2011, two friends and I decided to go on a trip. I don’t remember how the idea came about, but it was likely because we were all (and remain) wannabe vagabonds with some time on our hands. Blake and Misha are the comrades’ names. We remain friends today and I still love them dearly even though Blake and I tease each other incessantly and I seldom hear Misha’s voice anymore.
We needed to decide where to go. We all had dreams of the fixed rhythm of the Trans Siberian railway, of the brutishness and isolation of Central Asia. The dreams continued southward through mist-ridden Chinese rice paddies and Himalayan dojos so naturally nestled into mountain ridges that it appeared they had been born of colliding plates of titanic rock along with the mountains themselves. And then my mind lost all bearings of reality, like I was in some Dali frame. I recall that I had looked up a ticket from Dhaka to Kiev at one point. That’s the thing about plotting a trip. All traces of pragmatism and rationality dissipate and you become a Dreamer, like one of Dostoevsky’s antiheroes. Suddenly all things are possible, the options within your grasp touch infinity like an Ideal Point, and you spend your days on travel websites wondering where the hell you should find yourself next. Time and money rendered irrelevant, every prospect excites you and it’s one of the rare times you feel truly free. It’s a gorgeous feeling, one that rivals Christmas time as a small child or your first concert of that band you love.
We ultimately settled on a trip from Petersburg to Kathmandu via Mongolia and China. It met our criteria for epicness, it was realistic, and did I mention epic? After some discombobulated preparations, we left on May 15th for Petersburg, a Window to the West for some, a gateway to the East for us.
St. Petersburg was our very first of many stops, so we spent most of our four days there adjusting to the kinetic life, adopting the voraciousness of Animals with backpacks and a dream. We had White Nights, or the famed phenomenon when the darkest color the sky sees is a subdued light pink giving the city a whimsical backdrop for its dirty streets, just as rough as the people who inhabit them. I would walk around aimlessly along Peter’s Venetian canals and Parisian architecture with the wind stinging my face, getting lost in the romantic kind of way. That was me seeing the city even though I didn’t see or learn much. I went to the major sites, ate typical Russian fare. I added more footprints to the beaten path as Nevsky Prospekt was never more than two steps away. And yet, I relied on nothing more than a short impression, an intangible feeling to decide that I loved that city.
The thing about being an Animal is, it’s easy to fall in love. The thing about being an Animal is, it’s easy to romanticize everything because you can’t really take a good second look.
We left abruptly with Moscow on our minds. There were things waiting for us in places elsewhere, but we had to get there first.
The drab mustard yellow corridors of St. Petersburg’s airport were a welcomed sight in September because they were my first chance at a second look. Before I knew it, I was being handed house keys and a new life. I was situated in the center of the city, fifteen minutes from the train station that once shipped me off to dangerous Moscow. This was not the Peter I knew. It was in a picture frame this time; before it was from the window of a moving train.
I happily adopted the routine that was thrust upon me. I had class, and then I would do what I wanted. Week by week, my points of reference expanded. Day by day I was learning street names, more willing to give directions if someone asked: Mayakovskaya? Three blocks that way. Marata? Make a left at the flower shop. Suvorovskiy? I live by there! Don’t take the bus at rush hour down Suvorovskiy, you won’t move anywhere!
And so I got to know the city as Plants get to know their soil well. The hectic layout of Nevsky became etched in my hand; I could take the buses down that road blindfolded and I would still get off at the right stop. I walked ten kilometers daily, at least it felt that way, and I would wonder: “Why didn’t I know about that restaurant before? The comrades would have loved it.” These thoughts were regularly tinged with regret; now that I knew how truly incredible this city was, I wished I had done my first time in St. Petersburg differently. It was an easy and poisonous thing to think: now this city was a home in which I successfully existed and I knew its quirks, its streets. But as an Animal superficiality is more or less inevitable, it could only have been a blur. So I would remind myself that those kinds of regrets are silly. Animals have mindsets that not only came naturally with the speed of things but are also financially frugal, and now here I was criticizing my past self, a Plant, slow, wise, willing to spend on an experience. And if I could do it over, there is no way I could visit a new place for four days and happily remain a Plant, just as an Animal couldn’t possibly stay in any place for four months without itching to move. I’ve had instances where I was an Animal in a Plant’s jungle: havoc was wreaked, internally and otherwise, making for messy, long, and unfulfilled days.
I quickly settled into Russian life painlessly and with ease. But there was one week I remember that all I wanted to do was lay in my comfortable bed and watch movies on VK, Russia’s Facebook. That week it was difficult to be proactive, or even active. Any plans I had for exploration were abandoned for another day, perhaps erased altogether. My bed became a nest, I got too comfortable. And now there remain sites unvisited, activities incomplete, and restaurants untested, saved for another trip to Russia and St. Pete.
The thing about being a Plant is, there’s time. Time to see and do what you please, time to reschedule with friends if need be, time to take that slightly longer trip to that place slightly farther away.
The thing about being a Plant is, you have all the time in the world until you don’t.
Living in a city I once backpacked through is strange. You get the best of both states, the sun at first with its warm and steady glow and eventually the meat, quick to see and see it gone. Both are satisfying. It simply depends who you are and what you want.