June is my birth month and may be for this reason the question of identity has been a lot on my mind lately… One of the most popular questions I got asked is: “Where are you from?” which is, when I simply answer: “Russia” is followed by the stream of questions along the lines - “where are your parents from (Grandparents, great grandparents and so on, it turns into a very long and not so fun game…) or people would stare at me simply and blurt out point blank - “but you are Asian” or sometimes they would very gently whisper to me the same thing, but in a tone of voice, that would suggest they letting me onto a little secret, makes me chuckle really, because, trust me I am well aware of the fact that I am Asian.
I usually end up going into the quick explanation routine. Yes, I am asian, but I was born and raised in Russia. I am half Kalmyk (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalmyks), half Kyrgyz (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyrgyz_people). Kalmyks are part of Mongolian brunch and they have been living in Russia since XVII century and Kyrgyzstan is a country in Central Asia that used to be a part of Soviet Union. This is kind of an" explain yourself in under five minutes" routine that I am doing each time (minus the wikipedia links, that I include here for you guys, so you can get a little more info, if you feel so inclined) most of the times I don’t mind it really, because I would love more people to learn about diversity in Russia and world in general.
This image of someone from Russia as a blond/blue eyed person is so common, I tend to get into funny situations at times where, I would show up and people would not know what to do with me. My very first trip overseas as a model was in Singapore. The agency send a driver to pick me up at the airport to take me to model’s apartment (before you get to excited I had to reimburse my agency for that ride, because nothing in life is free). The driver had minimum information to go by - my name and the fact that I was coming from Russia and evidently he was waiting for a Russian model and then I showed up. “Hello! It’s me”. He was not having it, he kept saying no, no, I am waiting for a Russian girl. It took me a minute to convince him, that I was the one he was supposed to pick up, I even showed him my passport, so he would be at ease, I think he was worried I am just some local girl, trying to score a free ride into the city.
Growing up in Russia in my home town of Tynda in a middle of nowhere I stood out. There were not many people looking like me, so my outsides didn’t match up. Kids could be mean as we all know it and in the kindergarten I was told that I am not allowed to play with the toys, because those were for Russian kids only and I was not one of them. I won’t be going much into details of bulling, because it is in a past and probably not worth wallowing in. Just going to leave it as it was rough drawing up. One of the sentiments that I have heard most was “Go home!” which was so confusing to me, because in my mind, this was home already, I was born and raised there so where would they suggest I was supposed to be going? One thing was clear that I didn’t belong and so within me, it started that unconscious search for Home.
Things got much much better when I moved to St. Petersburg, there my part time modeling career started and soon enough I was invited to go to Singapore. I had to google it, because I had no idea, where or what exactly it was. The first international trip, I didn’t know it back then but my search for Home turned into real, geographical play. Singapore was great as the first trip, so organized and safe and proper, everybody spoke english and it was easy to get around and one more thing it was in Asia. Finally I wouldn’t stand out.
There is something liberating about blending in and I really did want to just be one of. Then there was Hong Kong and China but the even tho my outsides finally matched, the insides (cultural background, the way of thinking, language) all of it didn’t match at all. Language is one of the biggest things probably, in my mind it is a corner stone for your identity, becoming who you are, understanding those around you… And once I opened my mouth it was quite clear, I didn’t belong once again.
The amount of Chinese tourists I disappointed over the years is amazing… They rush to me in NYC Subway, they look at me hopeful in NY Common Food Pantry (where I at times volunteer) one lady singled me out on a train going from Naples to Florence, here we were in a middle of Italy and she managed to find me, only to be let down, because I had no idea what she wanted or how to help her, I don’t speak Chinese… Believe me, I tried to learn, but failed miserably.
I used to displease taxi drivers in Shanghai. You see in China before Uber showed up it used to be hard to get around, google maps are practically non existent and to get somewhere you were supposed to at least know the cross streets of where you going and you would need to say it in Chinese or at least it was supposed to sound close enough to Chinese so the driver would know where to take you, naturally on one wanted extra hassle and effort, so the drivers would usually just drive past european looking potential passengers. So my friends would put me by the side of the road to hail a cab, while they hide in a back and when the taxi driver would stop he would be unpleasantly surprised - not only there were a bunch of europeans waiting, but the only “Chinese” person won’t speak a world of Chinese … we would always end up getting where we need to go, but the drivers were NOT happy with me. I would catch judgmental looks all the way.
Here I was again, my outsides matched, but it wasn’t enough. One more time I didn’t belong.
Then there was New York, where everything changed, although it didn’t seem like it at first. When I just got to NYC I was walking down the street on my way to meet my new agency, I was passing by some construction site and got an earful from construction workers, if you ever been to NYC you know that they always have something to say, my english was not so good at the time, so I didn’t really understand them, but the word I kept hearing the most was “gorgeous”, I had no idea what it meant, but in all my previous experiences I never been called anything nice, especially passing by on a street, so I immediately assumed that it was a bad word. I thought to myself - Great, not even a day here and I am already getting called names… Then I walked into the agency and was greeted by my bookers “Hello, Girl! Here you are. You are gorgeous “ I stopped short. It couldn’t be, they wouldn’t bring me all the way to New York to insult me in my face, may be it is a good word ? I goggled it later that day to find out what it means exactly. It took me a couple of tries, it is not an easy word to spell :) and well I liked that word.
NYC changed everything for me. It became home, the one I didn’t even know I was looking for. New York brought me absolute freedom. Here I could finally walk down the street without the need to hold my breath every time I pass by big group of people, the was no need to tense up or keep on looking over my shoulder. I could be whatever I wanted to be, no one cared and I loved it. In this great city my outside and my inside finally matched up.
I love this place so much and people who make it what it is. So if you are reading this, it is my appeal to you - be kind. Change good or bad it always starts small and it always starts within. So at this challenging time and in light of recent events, now is the time to recognize that acceptance, humanism, tolerance, kindness it all starts with us, so let’s allow ourselves and each other find a place, where we would belong and be who we are, free.
This one is about my recent trip to Bali, Indonesia which was in many ways a very unusual and spontaneous one. You see, most of the traveling I do are work related, meaning it goes one of two ways: either 24 to 72 hours of airport-hotel-studio-airport or 2 to 3 month of living in a new place/country where I try to blend in and do as locals do, so this was first time in I don’t even reminder how long, when I went somewhere, for the sheer purpose of going somewhere, this was also first vacation in a really really really long time and damn, vacations are awesome, like duh …
Now, if you are traveling from NYC like me, you need to brace yourself for a long long flight of 24 hours, connections and a 13 hours time difference, so anything less then a week trip is really not worth the trouble… Besides almost everyone I know find themselves looking at there flight info, contemplating extending there trip within first 2 days, there must be something in a water…
My six or so days flew by so quickly, definitely keeping me wishing for more. More time, more adventure, more exploring, more living… but this is what I managed to see so far.
Started with the immediate desire to find a beach. It is January, it is somewhat 27 C ( 80s F) so you must go to the beach. I found that beaches are tricky in Bali, they are great for surfing, and if you are a surfer, you will be in heaven, but if you are a hopeless creature like me and not only do you not surf, but you are also a very poor swimmer, you may have to stick to the swimming in a hotel pools… Waves and currents are strong, so you might have to think twice before getting in a water… Getting in a water is made tricky by one more reason - trash. I have to be honest, never have I ever seen so much trash covering beach side and casually floating around the ocean, that made me incredibly sad and also served as a strong reminder of a personal accountability for plastic waste and recycling … Oceans and beaches are really not meant to be a trash can …
There is hope however, I was happy to learn about young activist sisters, who started a campaign for a plastic ban in Bali, you can learn more about them here - www.byebyeplasticbags.org
Now after lots of searching and driving around we stopped at Balangan Beach, which was small and less crowded, but again plastic …
Sure you can stick to numerous beach clubs and enjoy there amenities but It was important for me to see an un manicured reality and I am glad I did.
Grab a lunch at Nook - www.facebook.com/Nookbali/
it is as cozy as the name would suggest, white interior, open space and view of a rice field, great atmosphere and yummy food what else would you want?
Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary Ubud - www.monkeyforestubud.com
This one I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about, my only previous interaction with monkeys was back in Russia in a kindergarten when we all took a picture with one of them and I got to tell you we both were equally terrified…
I was really happy I did visit it in the end, the place is beautiful and in fact looks like a huge park/forest where monkeys roaming around freely, they would even try to boss you around, one of the little jokers was determent to pull my skirt off, unsuccessfully I am happy to report.
There’s a temple on a grounds of this sanctuary and you will find beautiful sculptures throughout.
There are few rules when it comes to monkey encounters and they are pretty much similar to what you would hear in a NYC subway, do not display valuables, don’t leave items unattended, do not eat or drink. Monkeys are quick, like really quick and sneaky, they will still your phone, earrings, glasses what have you. I personally witnessed glasses being snatched away from someone’s head and a flip flop being used as a chew toy.
Other then that, it is really fun walking around,watching monkeys go on about there monkey business, they are a really cute creatures after all!
Ubud is a home to vast number of yoga studios and many many temples, so if you have time, you should stick around for a while.
Have a bite in cafe Bali. Cute spot with homey atmosphere so much so that plastic covers on a tables kinda make you wanna go - awww… feels like you are at someone’s grandma house. Menu features local dishes and safe pasta, sandwich, salad options. Fresh juices in fact are fresh, but this is true of any places in Bali…
Pura Uluwatu - www.bali.com/temple_Uluwatu_Pura-Luhur-Uluwatu_82.html
This Temple is pure magic! Perched on a side of a cliff, surrounded by endless ocean, stunning views guaranteed. I think my heart literally skipped the beat out there and I truly understood what beholding something is …
It gets pretty windy on top, but you feel that it is a good kind of wind, blowing all the troubles away, leaving you renewed …
Pura Uluwatu or Pura Luhur also a home to a kecak dance, which you can see on a temple grounds but I think you need to buy separate ticket for that.
As per usual - monkey alert.
Important thing to keep in mind while visiting any temple is proper attire, you will need to wear a long sarong, this goes both for men and women, if you didn’t bring your own you could borrow one at the entrance, but I would suggest bringing your own, because you know … Also keep in mind that all of the temples are functional and are meant for worship so act accordingly.
Get a drink and catch sunset at Single Fin - singlefinbali.com
Plenty of outdoor seating, great drinks, nice music and breathtaking views, grab a seat and let the nature do the rest.
Get a food poisoning. While this day might not be on your agenda it is something to be aware of, since many (myself included) have fallen a pray to Bali belly …
Lie down, pray to God, contemplate life and just wait for this to be over and accept the fact that you won’t be getting out that one day.
Come prepared and bring some remedies for stomach trouble, drink lots of water, hot black tea with sugar does the trick for me. However if you find yourself without needed medicine you can find charcoal pills in 7/11 and such, we use them in Russia all the time, they are completely natural and great absorbent, your best friend at the moment.
For someone who doesn’t know how to drive, I have a weird fondness for all things cars and bikes like watching “Top Gear” (or “Grand Tour” now) so naturally I wanted to stop by Deus Ex Machina cafe - deuscustoms.com/cafes/canggu/#about
Food is not of spectacular kind, but your eyes could feast on all the custom made bikes you could find in a adjacent store or simply parked out front.
Tanah Lot - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanah_Lot
Another picturesque site. This small temple is located on a offshore rock. You will get wet crossing over to the temple side where you can drink from a holly spring and get “blessings” but the temple itself is closed for worship only, so it is completely your call if you want to do that or not.
This temple is heavily surrounded by various markets and gift shops, which I have successfully avoided, so can’t tell you much about those, but I imagine it is busy, loud and colourful …
Grab dinner at Echo Beach Club - www.echobeachhouse.com
Ocean side views and a great BBQ that gives you a choice of various fresh fish and seafood, which can be grilled to order your way, relaxed atmosphere and beach vibes all around.
Take Shelter - www.sheltercafebali.com/#home
Bring your appetite and patience.
Healthy food spot where interior and food are equally Instagram worthy… Great Acai Bowls, beautiful presentation, but stuff is extremely slow and inattentive, get ready to wait for your food/utensils/bill for a while. Despite the slow service, I would come back again.
Pura Tirtha Empul - www.bali-indonesia.com/attractions/tirta-empul-temple.htm
Perhaps on of the largest and busiest. This water temple is knows for it’s holly spring and serves as an important pilgrimage site for many devotees.
“Holy water spring” feeds purification baths found in a main courtyard and the rest of ponds and pools..
Purification ritual is a main goal for many visitors, it is a spiritual experience so if you do choose to take part it in be aware and respectful, don’t just jump in a water and wonder about.
There are man outside the pool who can help guid you through the process, they will explain the procedure, the meaning behind it and even give you an “offering’ ( small dish made out of leaf with flowers, rice and incense stick ) necessary for the ritual, all you need to do in exchange is tip the man, they don’t really ask for it, there’s not “fixed price” but it feels like a right thing to do. I would recommend finding on of these guys ( or rather they find you) because there is a lot to keep in mind and it could get really confusing, besides you want to make sure you are doing it in a proper way.
So if you are planing on doing this cleansing ritual, please bring a change of clothes, and extra sarong because you can not wear a wet one on a temple grounds.
There’s also an inner courtyard, that is quiet and beautiful, worth taking a stroll through to gather your thoughts after the ritual… be sure to pass by koi pound on your way out, these were the biggest koi fish I have ever seen in my life.
Take advantage of close proximity to Ubud and dine at Sari Organik - www.ubudorganicmarket.com/Market-members/sari-organik
It is somewhat tricky to find, but the location is worth it. This health oriented restaurant is overlooking rice fields and located on a farm grounds, everything is truly farm to table and you can actually see the farm right in front of you.
Cute sitting areas in a garden and in the open space restaurant. Peaceful atmosphere and beautiful sunsets …
Last day. Catch up on shopping, souvenir or otherwise. I simply roamed around Seminyak, checking small boutiques out in search of local designers and unique finds. Bali is famously known for its batik, so you will definitely wanna get something made of it, options are endless…
Seminyak is full of cute cafe and restaurants, so finding a lunch spot won’t be hard.
Check out Char Char -www.balinesia.co.id/charchar.php
It’s out door staircase setting is perfect for people watching :) Lunch specials and Happy hour is also a plus.
Head down to the airport and hold back tears, you will be sad to leave this place but you will be hopeful to come back.
Get a bike rental, or someone with the bike. Traffic is rather harsh and roads aren’t that wide, so you risk being trapped in a car more, then necessary.
Uber’s are available, but not really welcomed by local taxi drivers, so in many areas they won’t be available. If you choose taxi service make sure they turn the meter on, trickery and bargain are usual, Blue Bird taxi seams to be the most reliable one, but if you are staying for a bit, do get a bike and don't forget to get a helmet. There is a penalty for riding without, plus it is necessary, huge coconut fell on a road right in front of our bike and I was really grateful I had my helmet on. If you are coming during the wet season (October-April) get a raincoat and keep it handy, it rains on and off throughout the day.
Use the sunscreen, even if it is cloudy outside, close proximity to equator means really high UV index, so it is best to be protected.
Count your cash twice when using a money exchange, it never hurts to double check things.
Stray dogs are roaming around, so you might wanna make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.
Do yourself a favor and get a massage or 5. Massage parlors are plenty and price is somewhat 8 to 25 $ ( they are equally good, just the ambience is different)
Balinese people are very spiritual and every morning starts with prayers and placing offerings, you can find them scattered everywhere, even sidewalks and in front of shops, stores and other establishments, so watch your step, kicking it to the side would be offensive.
I had an incredible time in Bali, it felt like that place is exciting in a other dimension, where time flows in different pace and you are completely at peace and worry free…
Whatever you are seeking - you will find it there. Weather you want to go chasing waterfalls, play hide n seek in rice fields, dive into any possible kind of yoga, explore endless temples, surf, relax in a swanky beach clubs or dance through the night, you can find it all there.
So come visit! Soak up the sun, soak up the happy, soak up the free.