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How my Travels Began

I was 13-years-old the first time I traveled abroad, and without my parents. I had saved my allowance and paid for a portion of the cost required to travel with fellow junior high school Spanish class students on a two-week exchange trip to Mexico. We spent a week in Mexico City and a week in Acapulco, during which I fell in love with the language I was struggling to acquire, with the culture and the country. I had to return. And I did, when I was 17, on spring break my senior year in high school. This time I insisted that the trip should be taken as a family vacation. So this was the first time I dragged my family--Mom, Dad and my brother--with me.

Join the Army and See the World

At the age of 17, I enlisted in the Army, left home soon after turning 18, and rarely felt the need to return to Minnesota. I spent a year in Monterey, California, plus some time in Texas and Massachusetts. I was assigned to Wurzburg, Germany and arrived there just six days before my 20th birthday. It was 1989 and I was serving in West Germany during the last year of the Cold War. By an increadibly lucky stroke of good luck, I was in Berlin the day the Wall fell. It was the first time I had experienced history first-hand and it affected me to the core. Soon after I was able to travel to Czechoslovakia before it broke in two, East Germany before it was reunited with West Germany, and Poland. At the end of my two-year assignment, I brought my parents over and we went on a two-week driving tour of Europe. We covered Rothenburg, Munich, Garmish-Partenkirchen, and Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany; Venice, Italy; Vienna, Austria; Prague, Czechoslovakia; a city in East Germany; East and West Berlin; and back into West Germany for Wolfsburg and Frankfurt. We had no hotel reservations and we drove until we were ready to stop for the day. We took what ever room-for-rent we could find, and some of my fondest memories come from the adventures we had on that vacation.

The First of Many Trips to Russia

Soon after the Iron Curtain fell I bought a ticket and visited Moscow and Leningrad--as it was still named back then--as a tourist, which prior to this time would have been unthinkable as a US soldier and nearly impossible. I walked across the Red Square, where so many thousands of Red Army soldiers had marched in huge military parades displaying strength and power, and almost felt like I was doing something forbidden. I was entranced. Granted, the smog was pretty bad back then from all the old Soviet cars and diesel trucks, and I got car-sick everyday chugging along in the Inturist bus. While most downtown buildings were dirty and drabbly colored, the buildings that were national treasures were large, ornate, and very beautiful. And everything that glittered in Russia... was gold. The churches--thank God they survived--had gold crosses and gold cupolas. The icons were framed in gold. The beauty of it all took my breath away. That was 1991 and it was the only time I paid to go. The Army paid for me to return to the former Soviet Union several times over the next decade. I spent weeks living in Alushta and Yalta, Ukraine, and St. Petersburg, Russia. A contracting job with Land O'Lakes allowed me to live in a village not far from Tula, Russia for six months. The last major contract I worked had me traveling back and forth along the highways between Helsinki and Moscow for six months. I spent Y2K New Year's in Finland.

War: Not Exactly the Way I Wanted to Travel

Soon after moving to Washington, DC and buying a house in Alexandria, Virginia, I was called to war. It was January 2002 and the US was gearing up to attack Iraq. Why? I have no idea, and I don't wish to speak of such topics on a travel site, but I as a Russian linguist was being sent to the Middle East for reasons I could not fully support. I landed in Kuwait in early March and was assigned to Camp Udairi 15 miles from the border of Iraq. There I sat in 130 degree Fahrenheit heat for four months waiting to be sent in. In July I was finally flown into Baghdad where I would live on the compound at the Baghdad International Airport for the next eight months. I found Iraq to be beautiful, and the people to be warm and friendly. I fell in love with the beautiful Arabic lettering used as decoration everywhere, and imagined Saddam Hussein's palaces someday being used to house museums, hotels, schools, or tourist attractions. I thought Iraq had promise. My heart is torn seeing the chaos that goes on there now and knowing that so many historical and archeological artifacts have been and are being destroyed or stolen. So sad.

The Newest Chapter in My Life

In 2007 I met my future husband. We got married in 2009 and had a daughter in 2010. In the few short years my husband and I have been together we have had our fair share of travel. Our first trip was to Nairobi and Masai Mara in Kenya and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Next was Las Vegas, Nevada and Brainerd, Minnesota. Then off to Orlando, Florida; Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; Belize, Belize; Honduras. We lived in Tbilisi, Georgia for two years and visited London, England; Munich, Germany; Istanbul, Turkey; Yerevan, Armenia.

  • Intro Updated Jun 1, 2015
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Comments (5)

  • jonathanbarker's Profile Photo
    Jan 10, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    An interesting life Hanka, I started travelling on my own in 2006, when I went from England by train to Romania, and since then I have been to most European countries. Next month I am going to Lisbon.

  • HORSCHECK's Profile Photo
    Aug 10, 2013 at 3:36 AM

    Very interesting story here.

  • GentleSpirit's Profile Photo
    Apr 28, 2013 at 5:31 AM

    how amazingly fortunate you were to have been in the area when the wall came down!

  • IreneMcKay's Profile Photo
    Mar 30, 2013 at 7:45 PM

    I envy you being able to see Eastern Europe as it transitioned from Communism. It must have been fascinating. Irene

    • Hanka's Profile Photo
      Mar 30, 2013 at 8:14 PM

      And I was so young back then. Just 18. Everything that was so forbidden during the Cold War was suddenly wide open to us: Crossing the border into East Germany, East Berlin, and Eastern Europe, and shortly thereafter vacationing in Russia, walking across the Red Square, and staring at Lenin with my own eyes. Today doing these things are not so spine-tingling or hair-raising.

    • SalmanK4's Profile Photo
      Aug 6, 2013 at 7:04 AM

      how luck you are to travel such amazing places on earth..! please keep on traveling

  • akkipaa's Profile Photo
    Dec 24, 2012 at 3:06 AM

    Merry Christmas and happy New Year from Snowy Finland!

    Hyvää Joulua ja onnellista Uutta Vuotta!

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