“Shit. I made friends,” I sent a BBM message to my best friend from home. He knew what I meant: making friends in the post-Soviet realm often means drinking massive amounts of vodka.
Alcohol is probably the greatest social tool ever conceived. It not only makes you dumb enough to open up more than you otherwise would but it has its own set of rituals that are loaded with unspoken meaning. These rituals and their associated meaning doesn’t change for geographic location or culture — they are universal. Basically, they give you the opportunity to communicate to someone what you think of them, they demonstrate and often establish status and role, and they can be used to engage or disengage from a person or group. Social interactions can be awkward without these easy to understand non-verbal cues that use alcohol as their medium, and the intoxication aspect has little to do with this.
But I need to get better at drinking vodka if I wish to continue working in the post-Soviet realm. I’m usually pretty hardy and robust in this department — I understand that if drinking is to be of any value to me that I need to remain clear-headed enough to remember — but most men and women here seem able to outdrink me by far. I’ve simply never seen people able to drink so much. I’m stating the obvious here, as this complies with the stereotype that we all know, but it’s still truly phenomenal to see it happen right in front of you.
I can’t hang.
My next region of focus will more than likely be the post-Soviet states. I shouldn’t really call this the next region that I will be focusing on, as I’ve predominantly been in these countries over the past year and a half — going to 10 out of the 15 of them. The only post-Soviet states that I’ve not been to yet are Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Moldova, and Russia itself. The latter one is huge, and is a place that I’ve been pushing back going to until I have an “era” of travel to devote to it.
I like to focus on regions in blocks of five years, so I’m probably looking at the next three and a half years of travel going from the east of Europe to the edges of the Middle East, South Asia, and China. We’re talking a lot of ground here.