I was a self-absorbed seventeen-year-old American girl when I stepped onto a passenger train in Moscow the sumer of 1994. My travel companions and I were disgruntled that the 10-hour train ride our itinerary had boasted from Moscow to Samara was, according to our guide, actually going to be 18-hours. What were we supposed to do on a train for 18 hours? We could only play so many card games, and even teenagers can only sleep for so long. We were fast-paced Americans used to getting our food in under five minutes and zipping about the countryside in our parents’ cars without noticing the scenery. We were about getting places and doing things, and fast – not necessarily about enjoying the journey.
I slept off the travel exhaustion and itinerary frustration to the gentle rocking of the train. Rested and refreshed, I found myself standing in the hallway of my sleeper car staring out the window at the scenic countryside as we lumbered our way to Samara. I was mesmerized. Farmlands rich with dark soil, forests thick with green, and the blue, flowing Volga River wrapped their fingers around my heart. Having grown up in suburbia, I had never seen so much open land – pristine, uncultivated, uninhabited, and most likely as beautiful as the day it was born.
It didn’t take long to realize the 8-hour discrepancy in the trip had little to do with the slower pace of the train or the distance, but that we stopped at every little town along the route. Every couple hours, we felt the rocking train slow. Word traveled faster than we did, and by the time the wheels stopped, it seemed half the town had gathered at our doors to see the two cars full of young Americans onboard. They came not just in hopes of selling us their hand-made dolls and clothing, but to get a glimpse of so many Americans. We, the tourists, became the attraction.
By the time we reached our final destination, we were a different group than had boarded the train the previous day. The journey had transformed us as we took in the beauty of the countryside and the faces of each town. Our disgruntled dispositions had been replaced with grateful appreciation for those 18-hours – for the chance to slow down and view a chunk of countryside we never would have experienced at 30,000 feet in an airplane. We had fallen irreversibly in love with Russia’s exquisite land and friendly faces that greeted us at each stop.
Sixteen years later, I carry the lessons I learned during those 18 hours with me in every journey: Most often the best moments happen unscripted and off the itinerary. Relax, let the moments happen, and savor each one, for you may never get to experience anything like them again.