Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tips for Traveling in Eastern Europe

I have traveled quite a bit in my life...12 different countries on three different continents. I'm a very adventurous traveler...I'm not boasting, but I want you to understand where I'm coming from here. Travel in EE is very different from any other country/region, in my opinion-especially if you are going to rural areas. Here are some of the things that we learned while traveling in Eastern Europe. If you have been to EE and want to add your own, please comment!

  1. People smoke everywhere, all the time. EVERY. WHERE. ALL. THE. TIME. You cannot escape it. Your clothes and hair will perpetually smell like you've been clubbing all night long. While we were there, I kept saying to Greg, "EE has a smell about it. It smells the same everywhere. I can't put my finger on it." He replied, "Yeah, it's called cigarette smoke."
  2. Your pee will smell funny. Ok, I don't know why this is, but trust me. Your pee and poop will smell funny there. I'm not sure if it's the smoke or the food or a combination of both, but just take my word for it and don't be surprised when you go potty.
  3. Rooster Offal are rooster testicles. No matter how much mushroom gravy is on them, I don't recommend eating them.
  4. Smoked meat is either wet smoked or dry smoked. Go with dry. Wet looks and tastes like raw hamburger meat.
  5. There will be things floating in your drinks. Random fruits and bits of food that are unidentifiable. They drink a lot of these super sweet juice drinks...think the syrup from frozen strawberries. If this concerns you, stick with bottled water.
  6. The EE way is to push and shove your way to the front of a line. If you tend to be courteous, this will be extremely difficult for you. Just keep in mind that if you don't do as the EE's, you will never get to the front of the line. So check your manners at the concourse in the airport when you arrive. You won't be needing them.
  7. Women dress EXTREMELY provocatively in the summer months. Pray you travel in the winter. Summer is worse that the Victoria's Secret fashion show. This is not an exaggeration. I promise. I saw more hiney cheeks and boobage than I care to ever see again. Greg said he needed blinders as he felt wrong just seeing all these body parts exposed in broad daylight everywhere he looked.
  8. TAKE FOOD. Ok, I cannot stress this enough. We packed our large suitcase that we checked with toys for the orphanage and food. That's it. Take a variety. We took almonds, trail mix, protein bars, beef jerky, peanut butter, dried fruit, and other individually packaged items that traveled well. The reason I say this is not because you can't find food over there. You just don't ever know when you will be able to go to the store. For example, we took an overnight train from Moscow to K's city in EE. It was 12+ hours. There is no food on the train. Even if there was a dining cart, you couldn't read the menu. Then we were picked up and taken immediately to the orphanage. So if we wouldn't have had snacks, we would not have eaten for almost 24 straight hours. There just wasn't an opportunity to find food. As a diabetic, I would have been in a WORLD of trouble had we not taken a lot of food.
  9. Having said that, when you do eat, you do have some good choices. I recommend soups and stews, fish, or chicken. The food isn't bad, it's just different. There is a lot of mushroom, dill, and sour cream used in recipes. I do not eat mushrooms or sour cream, so if I can tell you that you can find things you like, you can believe it. :) I'm not picky, it just so happens that two of the maybe five foods I don't like are staples in EE.
  10. Traffic is nuts. No, cannot understand until you've been there. Think NASCAR meets monster truck obstacle course in the middle of New York City. I honestly thought I was going to meet Jesus on several occasions. We saw many serious wrecks. They drive FAST and the roads are TERRIBLE as far as their condition. There are more potholes than actual blacktop and the average speed at which you travel over them is 90 mph. We went airborne twice. I'm dead serious. Greg thought it was fun. Me, not so much.
  11. There is no use to try to learn the language. Learn "please, thank you, water, hello, and goodbye." That's about all you need to know. Remember, you will have an interpreter the whole time. The times when they are not around, you can use sign language. Nothing is in prepared for that. Not even in the airports or train stations. But you will be fine with sign language, I promise. I have a great story about trying to find a hair dryer...
  12. Do not over pack. Just don't. You will regret it if you take too much. Here's what I took and I felt like it was the perfect amount for one week in the summer months: a pair of black loose-fitting pants that could go dressy or not, a pair of khaki Columbia travel pants, a pair of brown pants, two travel dresses, black shorts, 2 camis, 2 t-shirts for sleep/lounging, a cardigan, a white t-shirt, a brown tank top, 8 pair of underwear, 2 bras, TOMS shoes, and black Volitile wedges. Looking back, I could have made it with one t-shirt for lounging and one travel dress. But I did wear everything at least twice so I probably would pack the same since it all fit in my suitcase. People in EE wear the same thing for days at a time. Our interpreter wore the same dress the entire time we were there. So if you change a lot, it will make you stick out. With what I took, I could mix and match for an entire week with clothes to spare if something got especially dirty. I washed underwear in the hotel sink at one point because I did change those a lot to keep me from feeling too gross. We were lucky to travel in summer because I didn't have to worry about coats, socks, or other warm clothes. I packed everything I needed for a week in a 15-in. rolling carry-on and only checked our big suitcase that had food and toys in it. It can be done.
  13. Anything goes as far as clothing. We were told to dress in black or dark colors as to not stand out. I totally think this is some kind of old rule that Americans still believe to be true. Maybe it used to be like this during communist times, but not now. We saw everything over there. EE's are very tall, thin, and have a distinct "sharp" look about them. We were just rounder and shorter so we stood out because of that. No way you can change those things to blend in!
  14. Contrary to popular belief, most places do not take U.S. currency. We were told by our agency that our hotel and most other places would take U.S. currency. We didn't find anywhere that took it. So go ahead and change money that you think you will need. We got stuck with no rubles on a couple of occasions and it was not fun borrowing money from our facilitator and/or scurrying to find a bank.
  15. Xanax is your friend. Get some for the flights. Especially if you get stuck on the same flight as 70 American teenagers returning from a summer in EE. Yeah, I double-dosed for that.
  16. There is internet service everywhere. You can easily find an internet cafe or get internet service at most hotels for little or no charge.
  17. Check with your cell provider and be careful about buying international service plans. We were told by AT&T that for $30/month we could have 50 text messages and unlimited data on our phones. That was bull. When we got home we were greeted by a $400 bill for just my phone. Greg's was through his work so that was not good either. These international plans do not apply in some EE countries. Even though I specifically asked about ours and was assured that it would be covered, it was not. So next time we will leave our phones off and just use the internet to communicate. AT&T did remove the charges because I called and raised cane and told them the name of the customer rep that sold me the plan. Bottom line...just be very careful with cell plans.
  18. Take a travel blanket, a sheet and a pillowcase if you are going to be on the train overnight. It also comes in handy at the hotel. I'm not a real germ freak (well, I kinda am), but you just feel better putting your face on a surface that doesn't smell like it was washed in cigarette butts.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure there are tons more things that I'm forgetting! My best advice is be sure to pack your sense of humor. Know that there are going to be times when things are going to go wrong. It's fine. It's a part of the fun of travel!


  1. We backpacked through the Grand Canyon (2 days) our our poop stunk. Crazy phenomenon!

  2. ROFL!!! It is so right on for Ukraine, too! When I came home, my duffel bag had to go in the garage to air out. I took some Downy wrinkle release and it was great to help get my clothes smelling fresh (and the "clean" towels we were given). I thought the women there made many of the young women in my college town seem modestly dressed. This goes for the brides there, too! Wowza! As far as AT&T, we just put our iphones on airplane mode the entire time and skyped on our laptops with our kids at home.

  3. Perhaps I should clarify. Not stunk (as what is normal), but a weird, different smell. he he he

  4. Other EE thoughts:
    --Make sure you tell your credit card company that you will be traveling overseas. We did and our credit card was still rejected several times
    --We used ATMs in both big cities and small towns; never had a problem (other than the credit card issue above).
    --Candy bars are pretty much the same anywhere. Look at the picture to discern nuts vs no nuts and to identify any strange fruit-like pictures. As a rule, stay away from the fruit filled candy bars. Yuck!
    --Dress in whatever is comfortable. We Americans "stick out" in our appearance, dress, language and customs so no real reason to try to "blend in".
    --Dress in layers and as Tesney said, wear the same clothes over and over. Dark colors don't show dirt/stains as much. You only have to rinse out the innermost layers regularly and will get many days wear out of the outer layers before needing to wash them.
    --If adopting, be willing to walk the town your child is in; take pictures, buy souvenirs, remember what you can. Our daughter was adopted at 16 months and had never been out of the babyhouse prior to our "gotcha day". She LOVES to hear about the shops, street cars, river/beach area and other sights from her birth city. We give her the sanitized version, without mention of the many social problems (limited resources for the orphanages, drunkenness, prostitution, etc). It seems to give her a sense of comfort that she "came" from somewhere before she joined our family
    --A sense of humor with ALL overseas travel is a must. No matter how well you plan, your luggage will be lost, you will miss your connection, your translator will be late/not show up, the hotel will lose your reservations and you will mistakenly order something horrible (like Rooster offal) that you have to eat. Shrug it off and keep moving....none of it will matter in the long run.

    Tesney, hoping you get to travel real soon to bring Kirill home!

  5. Thank you so much for this post. We are preparing to travel and be in country the first week of March. I have been asking on FB and others I know have gone for tips. This is exactly what I needed to know.
    Praying for all the families that wait to hear the outcome of the vote. Praying your son will be home very soon.