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Once a Northlander, Always a Northlander: Part 2

Northland Project Manager, Mike Vinokurov shares the story of his year abroad.

A little over a year ago, we had the opportunity to interview Mike Vinokurov before he embarked on his open-ended adventure traveling across the world. Today, Mike is back at Northland once again and we couldn’t wait to ask him about his travels, lessons learned and what his plans are for the future now that he’s returned home.

What countries did you visit during your travels?

I started out in Armenia, visiting a friend for his birthday, who connected me with an art mogul friend of his. She introduced me to a bunch of art shows, and that was incredibly interesting. I was also there during their peaceful, political revolution. After that I went to Georgia, spent some time in the mountains there, then made my way to Turkey.

Turkey was the first place I felt like it was an adventure, because in Armenia, I was jointed to my friend’s network. In Georgia, I felt like I could get around because it was very European and most of the people spoke Russian, which I speak, if they didn’t speak English. Turkey was the first time I experienced a foreign culture, foreign language, I didn’t know anything, and didn’t know anyone. So, it was the first time it was a real trek. I saw a lot of the country by backpacking and walking along the Mediterranean coast for miles. I eventually got pretty close to the Syrian border, and there were a lot of checkpoints, police, and armed guards, but it felt very safe. The people were very nice. I met a lot of Syrian refugees and they were some of the nicest people I’d met. I met a group near a shipyard who offered me tea and we sat and talked.

A lot of people actually mistook me for a Syrian fighter. I’m Russian and part of my background is Siberian, so I look a lot like someone from Uzbekistan or central Asia. One waiter I met at a restaurant told me I look like an Al-Qaeda fighter, which made me initially laugh, but the waiter didn’t think it was funny. He was serious. I realized this is probably why I was having a hard time connecting with locals in Turkey. When I told people I was from California, they often looked at me bewildered, so it was kind of a mixed bag of impressions.

After Turkey I passed through Lebanon and made my way to Egypt. At first, Egypt was very trying. I speak no Arabic, and after learning Turkish for 3 weeks, switching to Arabic was very challenging. The culture was also very different from what I had experienced so far, and the environment was more stressful. The air quality in Cairo was awful, the buildings were very run down, and there seemed to be a culture of trying to swindle tourists.

I was able to travel to Dahab, which was like the Egyptian version of chilled-out, laidback beach town on the Sinai Peninsula. I enjoyed Dahab a lot, because it was much calmer. I initially wanted to go to India on my trip, but after Egypt, I decided I probably wasn’t ready to handle the bustle of India.

After Dahab, I made my way to Israel and crossed into the border by land which is not a common way to enter the country, as Israel’s neighbors are enemy countries. There was one border crossing that was open, and luckily enough I was able to bond with my interrogator and pass through relatively easily. My Brazilian friend I was traveling with wasn’t as lucky and was questioned for quite a bit longer. The interrogator asked him, “How long will you be in Israel for?” and he responded, “Three weeks.” She then said, “What are you going to do in Israel for three weeks? There’s not enough to see here for three weeks!” It was pretty funny. I also happened to be in Jerusalem during Christmas, which was pretty cool.

Then I flew from Israel to Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I was traveling by the seat of my pants, so I flew into Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, no hotel or hostel booked, and I was super sick. So, I was walking around Bangkok sick, 50lb pack on, new climate, new time zone, trying to figure out where I was going to stay that night. Thankfully I found a cool hostel run by some awesome Thai people.

I spent about a week in Bangkok, and then took a train up to Chiang Mai, eventually making my way to Pai. I crashed a motorcycle there and got pretty badly scraped up. I’d never driven a motorized scooter before and asked the guy I rented it from for some advice. He said, “It’s really easy, just don’t use the front brake.” So, when I was coming back from visiting a waterfall, I was coming around a corner and thought to myself, why is that? Why shouldn’t I use the front brake? So, I did, and it didn’t turn out very well. The good news is I was not going very fast, but thanks to my injuries I couldn’t really do anything fun. Instead, I got to stay at a Theravada Buddhist monastery for a week. It was very peaceful, quiet, and gave me the time to chill out and heal my wounds for a bit.

After that I went to Mae Hong Son where I had my visa extended so I could go back to Chiang Mai and do Muay Thai for a month. I have practiced Muay Thai in the past, so I thought this would be a great experience to get back into that and start training again. At the end of my month-long intensive camp, I broke my ankle. Thankfully it happened at the end of the camp, but I had a boot and crutches on backpacking through Thailand, Laos, taking a slow boat down the Mekong river and then crossing into Vietnam.

The first town I stayed in was Điện Biên Phủ. That town has very few tourists and is mostly known for being the site where the Vietnamese defeated the French during the First Indochina War. That victory directly led to the split between North and South Vietnam, then the Vietnam War. Most locals there assumed I was French, which I think is because maybe it’s more of a historical place for French tourists.

I flew to Hanoi after that. Architecturally it was really interesting because there was a mix of building styles: East Asian, French, and even Soviet styles all clashing in the same city. From there, I took a bus to Cát Bà island and saw Ha Long Bay.

Then lastly went down to Nha Trang, which was very interesting to me because so many people there spoke Russian. I think it’s because there was an American airfield that was given to Russia after the end of the Vietnam War, so maybe Russian soldiers who were there told their friends about it back home and when the borders opened up in 91’ everyone visited or went back. There were Russian advertisements, they had banyas with the oak leaf branches that Russian spas use, even Russian food. It was strange to be in Vietnam speaking to each other in Russian.

Nha Trang is where I gave up, after limping around for a few weeks. On my way back I flew through Incheon, South Korea. I learned there that Incheon has a fondness for Americans, and even have a statue of General MacArthur, commemorating where he landed his massive counterattack against China and North Korea.

After that I visited my sister in Seattle, saw some of Southern California, then twiddled my thumbs for a few weeks and job hunting. Thankfully the opportunity back at Northland opened up, and I’m happy to be back!

What is something surprising that you’ve taken away from your trip?

My trip has taken away the fantasy of solo, freeform travel for me. I think a lot of people, myself included before this trip, want to be free to travel the world, and now, having done that, its dispelled the magic of it all. You know? I know exactly what it looks like and exactly what’s to be gained from that. So, a lot of people have asked me, when am I going again? And my answer is, I’m not interested. I don’t want to do freeform, solo, floating around, unplanned travel anymore. In the future I think I’d like to spend a few weeks here or there, like maybe to Japan or the Ukraine. I’d love that. And I’m really glad that I did my trip because I feel like it has gotten me to places with myself that I don’t know how I would’ve gotten there otherwise, but its not exactly pure fun.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your travels?

I think I did a fair amount of emotional maturing on this trip. Its kind of hard to describe because its also very personal in a sense, but I had a sort of revelation about family and how important it is. I met a lot of people who were on their second or third year of consecutive travel, and I always thought that I would really go with the wanderlust idea and want to just keep traveling. After this trip, I’ve realized I don’t want to be traveling for two or three years. I appreciate the stability of being in one place. And I want to build from there. I want to develop something and build it from a stable place. It sounds exactly like what an employer would want to hear, so it sounds a little fake to say but it’s true. I realized I do want to play the game of working, building relationships with my coworkers and getting deeper into the industry. In that way, this trip matured me and made me realize my goal of stability and building my life in one place.

Is there anything you’ve learned that will help you in your career coming back to Northland?

I think it helped in a lot of small ways. I’ve always been very observant, and sensitive to people and how they react to things. So, I think this trip has sharpened that, knowing when to push or back off, and reading people and situations much more clearly. I think its also bolstered my self-confidence to know that I’m strong enough to know how to navigate the planet on my own, and to have gone through scary moments, broken my ankle, and have had all these experiences. For instance, knowing that I can land at Cairo airport and instead of being tricked into overpaying a taxi driver I can devise a strategy to get to my hotel without having to overspend to do it.

What strategy was that?

I looked around and thought who can I talk to? So, I saw some soldiers and I thought well soldiers aren’t invested in trying to make money off me, so I’ll ask them. They told me, “Oh yeah just take the blue bus and it’ll get you where you’re headed.” I ended up paying 13 cents to get into Cairo, instead of $20 to the gouging taxi driver. Knowing that you can problem solve when things are foreign and you’re under duress, physically tired, in a new time zone, carrying a giant backpack, being able to adapt to the new environment does a lot for your self-confidence. 

What was your favorite country and why?

Probably Thailand. I spent the most time there. The same way that the US is imbued with Christianity, Thailand is like that with Buddhism. Everyone is chilled out. People who lose their temper are looked down upon, people are generous and giving for no reason. That spirit is everywhere in Thailand.

Least favorite country and why?

I’d like a redemptive trip to Egypt. I think under different circumstances, I would’ve had a different kind of trip. I’d like to go there with someone. Solo travel is great, but there were so many times I wished I had someone with me to share it with that I really trusted.

What is your next adventure?

Getting better at my job. Towards the end of my time at Northland last time, I’d become kind of checked out. There was something else on my mind and in my heart. Now I feel like the trip has refocused me on why I’m in a place like this, doing what I’m doing. So that’ll be my next adventure, to build here. I don’t want to be a forever floater; I want to settle down. So, these are the baby steps to get there.

Any closing thoughts?

I had my Northland jacket with me, and I like to say that I took it home. It was made in Vietnam, so, I took it home.