Archive | December, 2017

New Year’s in Kiev *Mystery Trip

31 Dec

Mystery Trip — a recount continues!!!  Over the next several days I will be posting the final 3 blog posts, which follow up Sammi and The Mystery Trippers experience throughout Ukraine…and beyond.  All of these are guest blog posts written by Patrick 🙂


A guest blog by Patrick

We woke up late following our epic evening out in Odessa, and somehow managed to pack and get on our way before noon. Ira and Marta took us straight to a Ukrainian breakfast buffet, where we gawked over the amazing colors and tried our best not to break the delicate cups dessert was served in. We weren’t successful.


A kaleidoscopic display of Ukrainian food. Note: some foods do not taste as good as their colors make them out to be.


Full with purple food and slightly more alive, we hopped into our luxurious vehicle and hit the pothole-filled road. It was a long, dark drive back to Kiev, and all of the credit goes to Sammi and Colleen for safely driving us the whole way. We narrowly avoided a major accident and somehow managed to navigate the craters in our lane without destroying the car. Phew. We also survived our second smorgasbord of the day, after Sammi got excited by the ‘crazy’ chips at a gas station and immediately purchased at least 13 different varieties.

We arrived back in Kiev to find a delicious home-cooked meal waiting for us at the dinner table (thanks Jona!). Cheese pie, local mushrooms, salad, and mystery mashed potatoes (no one guessed celery!) were exactly what we needed, and we laughed hysterically as we recounted our adventures in Odessa to Jona.


Mmmmmmmmmm. Celery mashed potatoes.


We played a Gustav Klimt memory game and built Ira’s new sofa before retiring for a well-deserved night of a rest. We awoke the next morning to the promise of more surprises; what could the final day of 2017 possibly have in store? It turns out, a lot!

We all headed out to the store to buy supplies for our New Year’s celebration, and on the way Ira suggested we pop into a Soviet-style cafe just to see the decor. It was decorated in 80’s Soviet style and was a true walk through history. We ordered some tea and were surprised when the waiters offered us some free champagne for New Year’s!



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Reading old magazines in a Soviet-style cafe.


The real surprise came a few minutes later. As we were toasting the New Year and getting ready to take our first sip of champagne, Helen ‘Surprise’ Wildy walked through the door!!!!



We were so excited to have Helen join us, and were incredulous that Sammi pulled off such a huge surprise! What a perfect way to start out our New Year’s celebrations! We headed to the grocery store to stock up on food and drinks, then returned to the flat to prepare for our daytime activity: we were headed to a floating Russian spa!

We readied ourselves in our ‘something to get wet in’ and headed to the frozen river. Our floating spa was an incredible log cabin complete with an intensely hot sauna, bucket bath shower, and super chill lounge room. Ira showed us the procession: jump into the ice-cold river (literally breaking a thin sheet of ice on the way), run into the sauna, get slapped with branches of oak leaves, then rinse with an ice cold bucket bath. Just another normal New Year’s festivity! We had a refreshing and relaxing time alternating between hot and cold, giving each other New Year’s resolutions, and smearing ourselves with coffee-infused honey. Unless you are Sammi, in which case you just smeared yourself with coffee.


The water was F-R-E-E-Z-I-N-G!



We returned from the sauna and had a restful afternoon in preparation for the evening’s festivities. Everyone got dressed up and we ended 2017 in style. Another delicious home-cooked meal with some traditional Ukrainian dishes and lots of wine. We made a list of the things we wanted to let go of from 2017, and burned them in a letting go ceremony. Then, we spent the final 30 minutes of 2017 sharing celebrations – we all took turns talking about the things were were proud of from the year. It was a wonderful way to end the year, and after many toasts and lots of laughter we rung in 2018 with champagne and fireworks through the windows in Ira’s newly finished room.



Black is the new black.

Happy 2018!


With 2017 successfully behind us, we underwent yet another wardrobe change and headed out to an old converted theater for the most hipster party any of us had been to. Well, except for Marta, who is so just cool. With the exception of the impossibly long coat check line where they ran out of hangers, the party was exceptional: a mystery tent where we played cards with a whale, a back room showing reruns of Russian children’s videos, a live music room with too much drum and not enough bass, sumo wrestling, ping pong, foosball, and an intense dance floor with DJs spinning crazy beats. We had fun all night long, and returned home just in time to watch the sun come up on 2018…

Patrick: “Is it normal for women to be in the men’s bathroom putting mascara on guys?”


Party animals.


“I can’t believe that whale didn’t speak any English.”



Sumo Sammi.

The Catacombs: All of the Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

30 Dec

A guest blog by Patrick

We awoke on our final full day in Odessa to the promise of an exciting surprise adventure. Sammi loved making us guess what we were going to be doing, so she started dropping hints.

Hint #1: We’re going to be walking around – wear comfortable your only shoes.

Hint #2: The temperature is going to be a consistent 13℃ (55℉), which is warmer than outside.

Hint #3: People (kind of) make something there.

Obviously, we were going to be exploring a sliver of the almost 3000km of catacombs located underneath Odessa and its environs. Would you be surprised if I told you that Colleen and I did not guess that correctly?


Now I DEFINITELY don’t know where I’m going.


The catacombs of Southern Ukraine provide an incredible slice of the area’s history. Given the limestone geology of the region, people started mining rock to be used for roads and buildings hundreds of years ago. Each brick, which required about 4 hours of painstaking labor to remove, yielded miners a tiny sum of money. Yet, over the course of centuries the catacombs expanded into an unbelievable network of tunnels that can be explored for days on end. From our location approximately 15 miles away, it was possible to walk, crawl, and squeeze all the way to the city centre. You can check out a bit more here:



Exploring the depths of the Earth.

We had an amazing tour guide who led us through the twisting passages, explaining the history and geology of the underground labyrinth in Russian. We paused to enjoy the beauty of complete darkness, listened to a symphony created by drops of water, and admired the historic drawings that marked the catacomb walls. Highlights included Colleen and Ira squeezing through the tiniest of crevices like spelunkers, Marta orchestrating some amazing underground photos, and Sammi holding her unlit flashlight at an area of interest for minutes before realizing it wasn’t turned on.





Creepy. But good color coordination.

When we emerged from the catacombs our senses were assaulted. Being underground for so long was the equivalent of two hours in a sensory deprivation tank: Ukraine never looked so beautiful! It was, in many ways, a spiritual experience.

Our guide expanded upon that: “Most of us think we have to look outwards and explore the outside world to find happiness. But what we really need is to look within and explore the infinite tunnels and passages that exist on the inside.” True.


Inside the catacombs I asked one of my favorite questions while drawing a Venn Diagram in the dirt. “If this is a circle of all of the things we know, and this is a circle of all of the things we don’t know, how much overlap is there. In short, how much do ‘we know that we don’t know’ versus how much do ‘we don’t know we don’t know’?

So why do I bring that up? Well, this Mystery Trip was full of an endless supply of knowledge that I had no idea I didn’t know. Ukraine has such a rich history and beautiful culture, yet few Americans know anything about the place. It’s a shame. But that’s the beauty of travel. Not only does it enlighten us about the things that we’re curious about, but it also introduces us to all of the things we don’t know we don’t know. And that sums up the Mystery Trip in a nutshell: a beautiful exploration of all of the things we don’t know we don’t know.


We somehow managed to navigate our way back to town (“IIIIIRRRRRRAAAAA!!! MMMMMAAAARRRRRRTTTTAAA!!!”) along construction-filled streets. While on the way we got a call from the Airbnb host saying we were supposed to check out in 4 minutes. Whoops. ‘I Planned This’ had accidentally booked our stay for one less day than planned. As Ira hung up the phone we hit standstill traffic. Uh oh.

When we finally arrived back at our place we had negative 34 minutes to pack up and leave. Did the cleaning ladies fold our dirty clothes for us?

We headed to a hipster market so Marta could feel at home. We also wanted to eat, use wifi to sort out some trip admin, and rest after a long morning underground. We dispersed to source provisions: fresh mussels, snails, whitefish, tiny shrimp, oysters, pizza, bread, and beer. Yummy!



Fine purveyors of Black Sea-food.



Fresh seafood!


We booked ourselves into the Hipstel Hostel solely to please Marta. Just kidding, it got great reviews. Colleen, Marta, and I headed there while Sammi and Ira stayed behind to plan. Apparently something had thrown a wrench in the plans. More on that later.



That pretty much sums up how much of a saint Ira is.


We had plans on our final night in Odessa: some of Marta and Ira’s friends were playing a concert at a hip local bar. After refreshing ourselves at the Hipstel we headed out into the rain for an exciting evening of live music, dancing, and mystery. Our first stop was a bar named Shkaff, where we tried the Shkaff-burger and Shkaff-beer while listening to some upbeat live music. We got in some dancing (Sammi may have even snapped a bit) and had a great time!



Ukranian ‘beer plate’ – deep fried garlic bread, sausages, and (literally) string cheese.







Music that sounds nothing like Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’.



Music that sounds nothing like Peter, Bjorn, and John.



From there we stumbled into a Buddha Bar, where we drank warm hemp milk and ordered the most exciting shot on the menu: a Green Mexican. We started a dance party and got lost in some crazy artwork.


“What’s your favorite shot?” “We only serve one.  A Green Mexican.” “We’ll take three.”



“Maybe it’s not the art that’s trippy, but rather the way that you perceive it that is in fact trippy.”

From there it was off to a Soviet bar, where we ate pickles, drank beer called ‘My Dark Past’ and ‘My Bright Future’, and marveled as EVERYONE belted out 90s Russian pop songs at the top of their lungs.


Surveying the menu at the Soviet Bar.



My Bright Future.



My Dark Past.



My Bright Future about four hours before it painfully became my dark past.


Around 3am talk turned to where the night was headed next, and naturally we all agreed that the wisest thing to do was walk down to the beach and skinny dip in the Black Sea. We gave each other New Year’s Resolutions as we ambled in the cold, contemplating how cold the Black Sea was going to be. We found an open convenience shop near the beach, where we purchased paper cups full of vodka to keep us warm while immersed in the bone chilling water. We wasted little time jumping in, and less time jumping out. Within four minutes the entire event was in the books, and we were slugging vodka from paper cups on the way back home.

We wrapped up the evening with a rousing game of Deep Sea Adventure before getting to bed as the sun came up. Keeping with the Mystery Trip schedule, Sammi took the opportunity to inform us of the rough plan for the next later that day: we have to drive back to Kiev. Oh boy, tomorrow’s going to be a long day…

Odessa: Pearl of the Black Sea

30 Dec

A guest blog by Patrick

We awoke early on our first morning in Odessa with instructions that we were heading out to ‘meet the sun’. We piled into the car and set out with both Ira and Marta navigating with their phones. This led to our first experience of what would soon become a staple of the trip: Ira and Marta arguing over directions.

Marta: “IIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAA!!! [Insert something in Ukranian that was clearly about roads and directions and which way to turn.]”

Ira: “MMMMMMMMMAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRTTTTTTTAAAAA!!! [Insert something in Ukranian that was clearly about roads and directions and which way to turn.”

This became such music to our ears that by the time the trip ended we were all saying IIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRAAAAAA and MMMMMMAAAAARRRRRRTTTTTAAAAA during normal conversation.

We were finally guided to the ‘entrance’ to a sanitation plant, which stood between us and our destination. We gently woke up the security guard at the gate, who was comfortably catching some zzzzz’s, and explained we wanted to pass to ‘meet the sun.’ He laughed at us and waved us through. We arrived at our destination: an outlet of the Black Sea known for its ‘healing’ mud that contained incredible amounts of minerals. There were multiple hospitals in the area set up to take advantage of the powers of the black gold. While the mud was certainly an attraction, we came there because Ira and Marta had heard it was a great place to take photos. Being industrious Americans on vacation we quickly got to work.


Are those the pillars in the really good photos we saw on Instragram?



Sisterhood of the traveling red pants.



Meeting the sun.



Maaaaarrrrrrttttttaaaaaaa, you’re Ukranian, why are you smiling?



Marta is SUCH a hipster.



Ira contemplates how badly we are butchering her language.



As we returned from our adventure, another trip theme began to emerge. The three Americans in the group were keen to learn as much about the local culture as possible, especially the language. As self-declared ‘savvy’ travelers, we all appreciated the importance of trying to learn the local tongue. So, from the moment we met Ira we began to pepper her with “How do you say ‘this’? Questions.

Here’s how it would go:

Patrick/Sammi/Colleen: “How do you say ‘Thank you’?

Ira: “Дякую.”

Patrick/Sammi/Colleen: “Da-coo-you?”

Ira: “Great.”

Patrick/Sammi/Colleen: (Trying again) “Da-coo-you.”

Ira: “No. Дякую.”

Patrick/Sammi/Colleen: “But we just said the same thing we said the first time.”

Ira: “I know.”

Patrick/Sammi/Colleen: “Ja-co-you.”

Ira: “That’s worse.”

First of all, Ukrainian is very different than any language the three of us have ever spoken. Secondly, you’ve got to appreciate Ira’s willingness to humor us by pretending we were at least close. Thirdly, this exchange never got old.

How do you say ‘straight’? How do you say ‘beer’? How do you say ‘I just want to fill up the gas tank all the way and I want to pay with a credit card without having to go all the way into the store’.

It always played out the same way, with Ira pretending we got it right the first time to placate us in the hopes we would drop it and us not letting it go. Poor IIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAA.


We made it back to the city after some more direction-related arguments and headed to Cafe Moloko for breakfast. Can you say hipster lattes?


They served free carbonated water in champagne glasses. We obviously returned multiple times.


Our afternoon plan was to take a walk by the Black Sea, and wow was that gorgeous. The sun came out and we had a lovely stroll along the promenade. We stopped for refreshments: our first introduction to strings of nuts dipped repeatedly in cherry or grape juice until it forms a thick coating (that’s the best way I can describe it) and beer. We passed by beautiful old architecture and slowly descended to the beach.



These steps are famous. No one knows why.


There were quite a few people out enjoying the coast, and there were even a few crazy people swimming in the ice cold water. We took note of that for future consideration. We found a playground and immediately tried to squeeze out what little fun the rusty swings and merry-go-round had left in them. We wandered along concrete piers and celebrated with traditional sandwiches of pig fat and sauerkraut. Yum?



This is a group of Americans having fun.



This is a Ukranian having fun.



This is an American and a Ukranian having fun together.



This is a pig fat and sauerkraut sandwich.


In true Mystery Trip fashion, we had even more surprises waiting for us. THERE WAS A GONDOLA RUNNING BETWEEN THE BEACH AND THE CITY. Marta’s Our only regret was that we didn’t ride it back down so we could take photos with the light on the right side. From there we caught a crowded trolley back to the city centre and ate burgers for dinner.


Up, up, and away!!!



Possibly the best public transport in the entire world.


Following dinner, we quickly got ready and headed out to see a show! Not just any show: Romeo & Juliet at the Embassy of Humor in Ukraine. Embassy of Humor? First of all, can we get our passports stamped? Secondly, now it makes sense – all of Ukraine’s laughter is concentrated in one building.


Preparing our faces for some Ukrainian humor.



Hooray for comedy!


The show provided everyone with exactly what they needed: naps, laughter, Shakespearean drama, and childhood memories.


The Embassy of Humor!


On the way home we stopped by one of Ira’s favorite spots for some flavored liqueur and fish pate. Our favorite part was the bathroom. Until Ira pulled out all of the stops and ordered a potato pastry. Question: Will Sammi and Patrick become addicted to a dense log of sugar? Survey says, yes.



Alcohol flavors: Juniper, Horseradish, Disgusting, or Really Disgusting. That’s right: horseradish was the second best flavor.


We wrapped up another amazing day with a visit to the grocery store, where Sammi and Patrick ‘carried the fruit all the way over to the pastry counter’ to the dismay of a store employee. She weighed our bananas (“Don’t we know how to say bananas in Ukrainian?”) anyway. We responded by ordering several potato pastries…

The Road to Odessa

29 Dec

A guest blog by Patrick

We awoke following Christmas #1 full of excitement: we were heading out on a road trip! Our original plan was to set off early to beat rush hour, but after discovering that our car was parked in by 14 (that’s not a joke!) other cars in the parking lot, we opted for a smoother exit after everyone had set off for work.


Our trusty steed: before and after.

We crossed a huge bridge overlooking Kiev and found the traffic surprisingly minimal – before we knew it we were on our way out of the city. Or were we? The city seemed to go on for miles, prompting the question “Are we out of Kiev yet?” to be repeated for at least an hour.

We had been informed that the drive could be anywhere from 4 to 12 hours long, so got busy settling into our new home. It took two hours to figure out how to get our phones hooked up to the stereo so we could listen to music, and only then did we discover that the only speaker in the car that works was in the front on the driver side. Given that Sammi was going to be doing most of the driving, this was obviously the perfect arrangement.

Sammi: “Can you turn the music down?” Patrick: “What, I can’t even hear it.”

Furthermore, there were a few intricacies to driving in Ukraine. Do you remember when Ira said she doesn’t drive in Ukraine because they have the worst roads in Europe? Well, she wasn’t kidding. We quickly realized that not only did the driver have to be on absolute alert for potholes the size of craters, mountain ranges in the middle of the lane, and darkly-clothed people on the side of the road, but the front seat passenger had to scout as well. The ‘shotgun’ seat quickly became the least desirable in the car.

A few hours in we pulled off the highway to explore. We were drawn to this particular town on the promise of a canyon to explore, but were soon informed by locals that it was definitely NOT worth visiting. Luckily, there was plenty else to keep us busy.

Our first mission was to find some breakfast. Luckily there was a small market set up in the middle of town, and Sammi quickly purchased some bananas and apples from a guy who had a bad English teacher. Of course he did, nothing is good in Ukraine.  We found the sausage shop and bought enough summer sausage to make us forget that Ukraine is a bad place to visit in the winter. Then we found a cafe but the waitress informed us that “Our coffee is bad!” so we followed her advice and went somewhere else. You’ve got to love Ukrainian positivity.  Errr, honesty.

“Hoe do you know that coffee is bad?” we asked Iryna.
“She told us it was bad.”  Iryna responded.
“Who told you it was bad?”, I pressed.
“The lady inside selling the coffee.”, Iryna explained.



Sammi: “These apples are awful. Do you want one?”

On the way we had to dodge a car that threatened us with switchblades for wipers.


Switchblade wipers. Just in case a Moscovitch tries something funny.

While we were getting our lattes at the convenience store she recommended, I spotted some beer with some interesting labels. The names of the beer ranged from “Why Calling Your Ex is a Bad Idea” to “Why is Psychiatrist Not Cheaper Than Shopping”. I was so excited that I had to buy a bottle, and only then did we discover that the beer was brewed in the little town we were in!



“This is brewed here?!?!?!?”

The locals who dissuaded us from visiting the canyon unsuccessfully tried to convince to hang around all day for the nighttime pig market. It may be the best in Ukraine, but we had places to go and things to see, so we instead followed their directions and passed the brewery on the way to a famous horse breeding complex. We were informed we had to pay to see the horses, so instead we just took lots of photos of ourselves.



Did you know that the Ukranian word for selfie is ‘selfie’?



Those horses are so cool.

The rest of the trip went as ‘smoothly’ as one could expect given we were traveling on the worst roads in Europe. The low winter sun was gorgeous as we passed through rolling fields of farmland. Ukraine is known as the ‘bread basket of Europe’, and its rich black soil is so good that the Nazis harvested it and transported it to Germany during World War II.  We arrived in Odessa in the dark, and retired to our Airbnb following some Ukrainian ‘fast food’ for a good night’s rest.

Transnistria: Hipster Nation

28 Dec

A guest blog by Patrick



Our daily routine on the Mystery Trip was as follows:

  1. Wake Up
  2. Receive Detailed Instructions for How to Be Prepared for the Day from Sammi ‘I Planned This’ Travis
    1. Example: We’re going to go to a cafe for breakfast, then go on an adventure where we’ll be walking for 3-4 hours, then eat lunch, then have a couple of hours to rest, then get ready to go out for 4-6 hours
  3. Have an Amazing Day Full of Adventure and Surprises
  4. Return Home
  5. Get a Teaser of Tomorrow from Sammi ‘I Planned This’ Travis
    1. Example: Tomorrow we’re going to wake up at 7:00am sharp, eat breakfast here, and then go on a road trip for the whole day
  6. Go to Bed


For the most part, Team ‘I Planned This’ was about as generous as Silas Marner when it came to sharing hints about our upcoming adventures. However, one evening I was able to coax out a little more information.

Patrick: “Where we are we going tomorrow?”

Sammi: “Moldova. Well, kind of.”

Patrick: “Kind of? Are we going there or not?”

Sammi: “Well, it’s complicated.”


Now my interest was piqued. To the best of my knowledge, we weren’t entering into a Facebook relationship with Moldova. So how could it be complicated?


Sammi: “Well, it’s technically Moldova according to the U.N., but we’re actually going to be in Transnistria.”

Patrick: “Trans-what? Where is that? Is that a country?”

Sammi: “Kind of.”


A quick visit to Wikipedia returned the following:

“Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a landlocked self-proclaimed state situated in the geographical region Transnistria between Ukraine and the River Dniester, recognised only by three other non-United Nations (UN) states: Abkhazia, Republic of Artsakh and South Ossetia.[6] The region is considered by the UN to be part of Moldova. The PMR controls a narrow strip of territory to the east of the River Dniester, and also the city of Bender and its surrounding localities on the west bank, in the historical region of Bessarabia.

Unrecognised by any United Nations member state, Transnistria is designated by the Republic of Moldova as the Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status.”


Whoa! This is the thing about traveling with AdventureSam. She doesn’t just take you to countries you’ve never heard of; she takes you to COUNTRIES THAT DON’T ACTUALLY EXIST. She’s the ultimate hipster traveler, getting to nations before they’re on the map. Literally.



Moldova: ‘It’s Complicated’ with Transnistria

We set out from Odesa the next morning in our trusty low rider, quickly disappearing into the grey, rainy countryside. We spotted a colorful oasis just off the road and pulled over in excitement. It was a graveyard.

Ukraine: Where the brightest part of your day is the graveyard!

We made it to the Moldovian Transnistrian border and discovered that we didn’t have all of the car paperwork with us. We parked the car amidst a stream of people who had come to Ukraine to buy Christmas Trees. Apparently pines are cheaper in whatstheukrainiancurrencycalledagain.

We had our passports stamped to show that we were leaving Ukraine, then walked across a river and into Transnistria. Or Moldova. Depends on who you’re asking. Transnistria had its own border patrol. We handed over our passports and were given a visa on a slip of paper that allowed us to stay in the ‘self-proclaimed state’ for 14 hours. We requested an official stamp in our passport, but they couldn’t give us one. Apparently, stamping passports is for UN-recognized countries.

We exchanged some money (yes, Transnistria has its own currency) and caught a bus to Tiraspol. We were immediately impressed with the generosity of Transnistrians, who provided Ira and Marta with all kinds of valuable suggestions for what to do in Russian. #trans(nistria)lators



Getting our Lenin on. Note the Russian flag and Soviet star.


Transnistria is a pro-Russian state, which quickly became evident by the abundance of Russian flags, Soviet symbols, and Lenin Statues. It was like a Soviet museum: there were hammer and sickle street decorations, religious monuments canonizing Soviet leaders, and even Soviet tanks. It was SO fascinating to learn about this little slice of the world.

Does this look like a crew that would order too much food?



This cheese-stuffed bread is a pie chart of how much of our overindulgent lunch we ate.


Following lunch we found the post office, where we splurged on Soviet postcards from the 80s. Ira and Marta remembered many of the designs from their childhood, and we Americans took an opportunity to send some messages home.


We spent the rest of day roaming the streets of Tiraspol. We immediately regretted taking a photo with the I ❤ Tiraspol sign, found a Christmas market where we stocked up for the Furries, saw the newest addition to the Official Transnistrian Christmas tree (a giant red Soviet star), filmed some interviews on our travels, and watched swarms of birds swirl around another statue of (you guessed it!) Lenin.





Ira needs to fix the tinsel on her house.



“You have got to check out the new Soviet star we got for our official Christmas tree!”


We stumbled upon a Soviet Christmas tradition: a children’s party where kids could have their picture taken with Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and Snegurochka (his granddaughter). It was adorable to watch the Transnistrian children, all dressed up for Christmas, smile or sob as they posed for photos. Then, we were introduced to the famed Baba Yaga, a witch-like woman who eats little children. She was equally as popular as Grandfather Frost, which made us wonder if we were still in Ukraine.



This pretty much sums up Patrick’s relationship with women.


With all of our hearts racing after meeting Baba Yaga, we made our way back towards the bus station. Conveniently, the fancy restaurant from lunch was on the way and we still had money to spend. How do you say “We’d like five pieces of cake in Transnistrian?”

Full of cake, Christmas, and new knowledge, we ambled back to catch our bus and return to Ukraine. Still trying to wrap my head around everything we had learned, I engaged Ira one last time.


Patrick: “So, wait, are we in Moldova right now?”

Ira: “Technically, yes. But no.”

Patrick: “What?”

Ira: “It’s complicated.”

And so it goes.


If you’re interested in learning more about this complicated place, I’d recommend you check out this article:


As for us, we couldn’t be more grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this self-declared state. We learned so much and left overwhelmed with what we had just experienced. We departed with more questions than answers, which is definitely the beauty of visiting a nation that’s so hipster it doesn’t even exist.



Goodbye, Transnistria.

Christmas in Kiev

26 Dec

A guest blog by Patrick


We stepped off the plane into a foreign land, not knowing where we were, where we were going, or what time it was. Sammi had taunted us with the extra boarding passes she had been carrying since we checked in, so despite reading signs that welcomed us to Kiev, Ukraine, our final destination was still a mystery. We walked up to the fork in the road: go left through security for connecting flights or go right through immigration and enter Ukraine. After a dramatic pause, Sammi ripped up our connecting tickets and handed us our passports: WE WERE STAYING IN UKRAINE!!!

We rocked our Mystery Trip hats as we passed through immigration and customs to find a slew of non-smiling Ukrainians waiting at the airport exit. I noticed something strange in the crowd; I was almost positive one women had slightly raised the corner of her lip. Did she just smile at us? Only seconds later the same women surfaced through the throngs of people, excitedly rushing to hug Sammi. It was Mystery Trip Surprise #2: a WELCOME PARTY!!!



Iryna ‘Nothing but Positive Things to Say About Ukraine’ Kolotylo


We met our new friend/best friend Iryna and she immediately started fueling our excitement for our grand adventure.


Iryna: “Welcome to Ukraine. This is the worst time of the year to visit. The weather is awful and everything is dark and gray.”

Patrick & Colleen: “Oh. I’m sure it will be amazing anyway – we like snowy weather.”

Iryna: “Did you know that there’s a war going on here? It’s pretty awful.”

Patrick & Colleen: “Merry Christmas?”


We found the car rental counter and Sammi went to work sorting out our new low rider. Sammi came over to ask who wanted to be the second driver.


Iryna: “Ukraine has the worst roads in Europe. I know how to drive but I never drive here because it’s so horrible.”


Her positivity was absolutely palpable.


We made our way to Iryna’s flat to discover that our Welcome Party had grown to three! Iryna has sisters!!! Marta and Yanina welcomed us with a DELICIOUS home-cooked Christmas Eve dinner – shout out to the local white mushrooms from Western Ukraine and cheese dipped in honey (Sammi, write that down!). We were informed that Christmas is traditionally celebrated on January 6th in Ukraine, but this year was the first year that December 25th was a national holiday. Let the ETERNAL CHRISTMAS begin…


♭I’m dreaming of a white Christmas (tree).♭


We woke up the next day to the excitement of a Christmas gift exchange. Ira, Marta, and Yana collect ornaments from friends around the world, and just like that one of our puzzling instructions made sense. We gifted our hosts an ornament from each of our states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Colorado) and they quickly found a new home on the tree.


I’ll bet you can’t guess which one Sammi brought!


Then it was time to exchange gifts, which was incredibly fun! Highlights included chocolate from Ukraine’s very own Willy Wonka President (, amazing magnets from a famous Ukrainian painter (, and Pittsburgh Penguins socks. #Pittsfurgh

Following breakfast we were informed to get ready for a day exploring Kiev. We boarded a cute yellow bus, paid 10 whatstheukrainiancurrencycalledagain for the ride, and headed to the subway station.



Whatever you do, do not smile.



The official ‘Ukrainian on Public Transport’ face.


After crowding onto our first subway car, we started to notice some themes. Namely, it quickly became abundantly clear that no one was smiling. We looked around at hundreds of faces, all looking serious. In fact, when we finally spotted a smile we had to take a picture of it…it was on an advertisement.



This guys is THRILLED to be carrying a bag of rubber duckies.


We took the fastest escalators ever out of the subway station and set off to explore the town. We perused a beautiful market, ate Georgian bread, saw a musical performance at a Roshen candy store, ate some healthy candy purely for the nutritional value, drank cherry liqueur with monkeys, wandered through the Gapchinska art gallery, frolicked in a trippy Alice in Wonderland-themed playground, marveled at some murals, ate chicken KIEV, ordered coffee way too late into the evening to think that Sammi was going to sleep, reproduced an epic pedestrian bridge jump photo because we thought it looked cool, drank mulled wine at the Christmas market, danced while a symphony played the Christmas Classic ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, visited a monastery, failed to stick coins against a fountain and therefore were granted no wishes, drank at a hipster bar, posed with the cutest hedgehog statue in the world, visited the ‘oldest cafe’ in Kiev (we checked, it’s 50 years old), and laughed all day long.



Um, why does the fruit smell like caviar?



Ukrainian church.



Amazing street mural.



Sammi stopped listening at “This candy is the healthiest…” and immediately bought several. #healthychoices



Alice in Wonder…Kiev.



What do you mean I get to count the money?!?



So pedestrian.



Q: How do you choose which Ukrainian Christmas market to go to? A: Learn that the other one wasn’t finished in time.


The cutest hedgehog statue in the whole world!



Was that guy taking a photo of that manhole cover?



Iryna continued to delight us with her enthusiasm and national pride. Her positivity was endless.


Iryna: “This is the Office of Foreign Affairs. When I came to Kiev it was my dream to work there.”

Patrick: “Oh, that’s awesome! Did you get to work there?”

Iryna: “Yeah. It was the worst place ever to work.”


Iryna: “Welcome to the shortest main street in Europe.”


Iryna: “This is the stupidest statue in Kiev. It’s supposed to be of a Cossack warrior, but the horse is small and looks like a dog and the warrior’s feet are pushing on imaginary stirrups.”




Finally, on a serious note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share the most powerful part of the experience. In 2014, Ukrainian citizens staged a three month long protest after their then president abandoned plans to join the European Union in favor of a trade agreement with Russia. People took to the main square, Maidan, and created a living community in protest. The government responded with violence, and many people died in the name of democracy and freedom. After several months of unrest, the president eventually resigned and fled the country, setting the stage for a new election and government.


We would HIGHLY recommend that everyone watch the documentary Winter On Fire ( It is skillfully made and incredibly moving. It serves as a powerful reminder that there are people all over this world who are willing to stand up for what they believe in and what is right for their country. It’s inspiring.


After watching Winter On Fire, we had the chance to visit a memorial to the people who died during the revolution. We heard their stories and listened to Iryna’s description of what it was like inside the protests – she volunteered to serve food to those involved. Walking the streets where such a powerful display of courage had occurred, we couldn’t help but feel grateful for everything that we take for granted.



Maidan: The site of the revolution.



We arrived home overflowing with new knowledge, delicious food, and Christmas merriment. What a wonderful Christmas in Kiev! But, in true Mystery Trip fashion, the adventure was only beginning. Sammi told us to have our bags packed and be ready to go at 8:00am sharp – we were heading off on a road trip the next day…



Merry Christmas from Kiev!

Oh, The Places You Go — Mystery Trip

25 Dec

A guest blog by Patrick.

With exactly one week to go before Mystery Trip 2018, I sat down to wrap my head around everything that had happened since we received the following text from Sammi on Monday, August 14:


I can’t tell you which is more intriguing:  an EPIC, personalized travel-ganza or the though to my passport’s exoneration.


I scoured every last text message for hints, clues, and instructions. This was the result:

Sammi recommends duel-purpose undies.  #is13pairstoomany?


For months Colleen and I had organized clandestine FaceTime chats to try to prepare ourselves for what would surely be an EPIC adventure. But how do you properly prepare for a Mystery Trip? Do you read into every single clue and try to figure out your exact destination (there are a lot of places with an average temperature of 31℉ in December)? Or do you try your hardest to not think about it despite the fact that EVERY SINGLE PERSON you mention it to immediately starts throwing their guesses at you? How many times do I have to tell you, we’re not going to Canada!

We chose Option C: obsess over packing. Countless hours led to two carefully packed bags, each less than 55x20x40cm, with everything we could possibly need to be able to go out on New Year’s Eve (and possibly other times) in public during the 60% of the trip we’d be in a city and largely inside, and still be prepared for the possibility of snow/rain and for weather that feels colder than the 17℉ low during the 40% of the trip we’d be not sleeping outside. We obviously wore LAYERS onto the plane.

Colleen obsessed took care of the snacks. I convinced her to bring a curling iron so we could use it as a microphone.

We put together a Mystery Trip Playlist: you should check it out! Sammi requested the first song, and we curated the rest…



Our planes from Chicago and Denver converged at LaGuardia in New York, where we turned on our phones to find instructions from Sammi to meet her at JFK. We left a trail of candy cane crumbs in our Lyft on the way to the airport. We scoured Terminal 7 far and wide before finally spotting Sammi – she was hard to find because of her camouflaged hat.


Headline: Savvy American tourists prepare to integrate into local culture.

We immediately handed over our passports to Sammi who worked her incredible magic to get us through the check-in counter and security clearances without a glitch. All that stood between us and a true mystery was getting on the plane.

We were a hit at the airport – people couldn’t believe what we were up to and went out of their way to talk to us. #AdventureSam

Colleen and I synced our music, turned it up to full blast, pulled our hats over our eyes, and stumbled down the long hallway to our gate.


3-2-1: Board!

Sammi guided us expertly onto the plane – we only ran into her like 17 times. We got to our seats, where she quickly scoured the area for anything that might give our destination away. Nothing. Then she looked up and saw a giant map of our flight broadcast on a massive TV 6 feet in front of our seat. Whoops! We resolved to keep our eyes to our row. : )



The thrill of successfully getting on a plane without knowing where we were going was powerful. Colleen and I were pumped! Sammi immediately fell asleep. Her loss: she missed out on two awful meals (“What if the place where we are going isn’t known for its food?”), a bootlegged version of iRobot with Chinese subtitles, and discovering that our overhead reading lamps were controlled by the wrong seats.


How could she possibly sleep with a  delicious meal of overcooked noodles and mystery strawberry foam nearby?


One of the aspects of the trip Colleen and I hadn’t prepared for was the fact that we had no idea how long the flight was. Here we were, wedged into seats on a low-cost airline with our heads down to avoid looking at the giant map in front of us, with no freaking idea where we were going or when we would get there! Luckily, I had put together a Funtivity packet that allowed Colleen to win an EPIC game of dots and squares.



And then, finally we landed! We had no idea what time it was, where we were, or what was waiting for us once we stepped off of the airplane. But, as we were soon to find out, you can always count on an amazing experience when AdventureSam is wearing her ‘I Planned This!’ hat…


— Patrick

A Comprehensive History of the Mystery…

24 Dec

PRESENT DAY: ‘Tis finally time, my friends, for Mystery Trip 2018, where I choose your choice. We’ve got our tickets in hand, our bags packed, and our passports ready for the stamping. But you still don’t get to know where we’re headed just yet … This is the flashback episode; the part of the blog where I relay to you the events leading up to this very moment—the moment we step onto the plane without looking back. Ready?

*Cue the rewind sound effect*

AUGUST: It all began on one, long flight to Peru where I thought about how fun it would be to plan a trip for some adventurous travelers who would agree to get on a plane without knowing where they were going or what they’d be doing. But where, oh where, was I supposed to find a couple of crazy kids like that?




And Patrick!


Colleen took my initial idea and ran with it. She called me in August with specific dates and a budget. After a 3-way Skype call with Patrick, we all agreed to some pretty basic rules:

1.   Safety first – The destination could not be one of the five most dangerous places in the world (because we’re crazy, but not that crazy). Ask me about the sixth most dangerous place in the world, and maybe I’ll consider.

2.   Variety– We’re all well-traveled and love our new experiences, so we agreed that the destination should be somewhere none of us had gone before.

3.   The Benjamins, baby – Of course, you can’t plan a trip without talking money. We came up with a solid budget of $2,500 per person.


So, I started planning. We’ve all been traveling for quite some time, so the rules really narrowed down my search. But the process didn’t come without its challenges. I had to navigate around the fact that:

  1.   Patrick, Colleen, and yours truly are all from separate places. I would have to figure out how to get Patrick from Denver and Colleen from Chicago, while I of course, would be leaving from Pittsburgh.


  2. We were going to be spending Christmas and New Years abroad, which is automatically going to drive ticket prices up, up, and far away.


But hey, haven’t you learned by now? I’m a pro. So after much research, price shopping, and city-to-country matrixes, I booked the flights and sent my brave souls a fun little confirmation.



And so it begins! Muhaha!


NOVEMBER:  By November, we were all getting really into it. My teasing text messages were at an all-time high, and Colleen started working on the official Mystery Trip 2018 uniforms.



Which of these hats is not like the others?



Official uniform of Mystery Trip 2018!


I should’ve had them make blindfolds, but hopefully the caps will shield them from any indicators or clues at the airport.

What makes this whole thing extra fun is that both Colleen and Patrick have been eager from the start to maintain the surprise element of this trip, so I gave them another little assignment: They needed to create a combined playlist so that they won’t be able to hear any announcements from the terminal or on the plane.

As the month passed by, and with the spirit of giving among us, I finally gave them a few morsels of information about our destination:

Climate = bring a really warm jacket…like, really, really warm.

Activities = bring some hiking boots, your adventure pants, and something to swim in, because plot twist! We’re getting in some water! (Might I recommend some extra warm, long underwear for this occasion?)

Festivities = bring a Secret Santa gift, and make it fancy (just kidding, just something around $20).

But as I giveth, so do I also taketh away. You knew there’d be a catch right? And in this case, it was that they were only allowed to pack one carry-on. They’re traveling with AdventureSam, and when you travel with AdventureSam, you need to step up to the challenge. It’s all part of the fun!


DECEMBER: Can you imagine being two weeks away from a trip and not knowing where you’re going or when you’re even getting on the plane? Colleen and Patrick can. Colleen and Patrick definitely can, because two weeks away, and they still hadn’t received any information from their dear pal AdventureSam. I sent them this little text to ease their anxieties:

“We will be going out for New Years (remember the temperature). It won’t be fancy, of course, but it will be out in public. Also, I don’t think we’ll need snow shoes. But if we do, at least we won’t have them together! #Solidarity”

So finally, one week before the trip, I decided to throw them a bone and let them know they’re departure times. I mean, the suspense was just killing me; I couldn’t stand it. But I still kept the itinerary a secret—I was only going to give them that info 24-hrs in advance.



NOW: So, we’re back where we started. I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane. And now, as a quick little game, I’d like to know where you think we’re going. The polls are now open for educated guesses. For a recap:

1.   It’s cold
2.   We will be swimming at some point
3.   We’re going out for New Year’s Eve and a few other nights
4.   40% outdoors, 60% city

I let Colleen and Patrick play, too. So here are the final results

Colleen: Iceland
Patrick: Norway
You, my lovely blog reader: [Insert your guess here]
And the winner is…





2017 Travel Summary: A Little Less Conversation (about blogging), A Little More Actual Blogging…

22 Dec

Ok, here’s the deal:

We all know I’m just a little behind on my blogging. And by “a little behind,” I mean 5 months behind—okay, maybe 6. But I have some good news and some extra good news for my party sized readership, which is growing.  Welcome new people!!  The good news is that there aren’t many rules when it comes to blogging, which means the blog police can’t revoke my license to spill if I fall behind on a posting or two. Life gets in the way; writing can (and will) get a little bothersome. It happens!


I was so busy this year, I even had to brush my teeth in airport bathrooms! How could anyone expect me to blog, am I right?


Now for the extra good news… drumroll, please… I’m getting back in the game! To finish updating AdventureSam, I’ll be playing catch-up and posting on Thursdays* in 2018, as a “Throwback to 2017” travel tribute. Ultimately, my goal (my pre-New Year’s resolution, if you will) is to both get back to posting in real time AND to catch up on the second half of this year.

*The fine print: I might not post a back blog every week, but when I do, it’ll be on Thursdays.


The birdseye view from a plane window—a favorite view from this year.


So without further ado, here’s a quick summary of my 2017 travels and a lil’ sneak peek of some posts you can look forward to on upcoming TBTs (“Throwback Thursdays” for those who don’t speak Internet):

  • Nine weeks exploring Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand)
  • Several weeks groovin’ out West (California, Colorado… and let’s generously throw in Ithaca, NY)
  • A month living it up in Peru  (the Amazon, hiking around the Andes, and visiting Machu Picchu).  It felt like the end of an era era era when I finished writing about that.
  • One long, joyous weekend spent in New Orleans
  • Two weeks hanging out with the fam in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine (feat. a long layover in Iceland)
  • Living, laughing, and loving in the great outdoors of New York and West Virginia
  • Four days catching up with my Peace Corps Momma in Jamaica
  • One Thanksgiving weekend, partying with the Amish in Litiz, the coolest small town in America
  • An action-packed week schmoozing with Berlin



That moment when you start thinking about your 2018 travel plans.


And for those curious about my upcoming travels, get ready for:

MYSTERY TRIP 2018. Pack your bikinis, pack your snow coats, pack your surfboard and your skis, because there’s no knowing where we’re going! Okay, so maybe it’s not a complete mystery. After all, I’m in on the secret, but our destination, well, that’s for me to know…and you to find out!  😉




En route to endless adventures

The sky’s the limit,


A Little Bit of Chanukah in My Life

14 Dec

Throwback Thursday…


The blog post title is to be read to the tune of “Mambo Number 5.”  And now that we have the same song in out heads,I can begin telling you all about the amazing Chanukah season (last December — yay for getting caught up!)  which began with a chance encounter. I reread the blog from last year’s Chanukah party and saw a good tip – the basketball dreidel is the one who gives out all the gimmels.

That first night of Chanukah, I found a different dreidel on the street. Now, if that isn’t a good sign then I don’t know what is. A sign of what, you might ask? Who knows… maybe just a good omen that Chanukah December 2017 was going to be a blast.

And blast, it was. It was a white Chanukah, and unexpectedly so. While Ben and I were out one night, it started pouring snow… Can you use “pouring” for snow, or just rain? I’m just gonna go with it. It was pouring snow, and since Ben is from California, it was actually the first time he had seen it fall from the sky quite like this. He said he didn’t know it was going to happen all of a sudden.  “It’s snowing!!!! Help, what do I do?!” – Ben He asked if he should use an umbrella, and since he lives by a school he watched lots of children and their mothers do it. He thought he should. Before I could answer him he had walked to work but by the time he got there he had realized that umbrellas are for children under the age of five and grownups don’t use them in the snow.



Goin’ to a shindig.


So along with the snow and the good-omen dreidel, another wonderful standout from Chanukah 2017 was going to Ben’s office Christmas party. You know how in TV shows, the office Christmas party gets a little wild? I was expecting a couple of employees scandalously making out in a bathroom stall, the intern puking on the carpet because he drank too much eggnog, and someone (potentially the boss) walking around with a lampshade on her head. Well, it wasn’t that extreme, but it was a ton of fun. I met his co-workers, who were really great. We talked about their work, inside jokes that I wasn’t apart of, and dynamics I didn’t understand (I promise, it was a lot more fun that I’m making it out to be), and it was incredibly entertaining. There was great food, free drinks, and by the end of the night, I was even in on the office gossip. I think that counts as a success.

Later that week, I met up with one of my friends from the Peace Corps, Andy.  It had been so long (too long!) since we had seen each other, so it was really great to catch up and learn about all of the life events that had happened since we last met. We did some sightseeing and ended up going to an art gallery opening for a professor at CMU.  We also went to go see improv, (her first time!), so I was really excited to share that with her.


Taking a break from catching up to snap a pic.


Of course, taking her to a comedy show just made me crave even more comedy. So I when Ben’s brother Noah visited for the holidays we took him to see a show, too.



Chanukah season — although only 8 days — was very eventful.   I’m going to stretch it and call it most of December, actually. For the first time (out of the rest of forever), I got to use the use the menorah from the kibbutz my family and I bought together in Israel.  Very special.



I think finding that dreidel on the first day was definitely a good sign because without even playing (okay, Bel and I did play), I felt like I got a gimmel (should out to Jimmy Gimmel!) because I got everything I needed this Chanukah.


Festive friends.


Burning all the candles,