Editor’s note: Olesya Holker first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project’s “Travel.” The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
All I can remember from my childhood is being backstage at different Russian theaters watching my mom perform. My mom is an actress. Her theater troupe was always on the go on a big bus. Before I had to go to school, which is around 6 years old, where that bus went, I went.
My mom always wanted to be an actress, and it so happened that she got pregnant with me during her sophomore year of college.
I was born in Angarsk, a small town in Siberia, where the most popular activity was ice skating, and thanks to the severe cold weather, you could do it most of the year. I lived with my grandma for a couple of years, while my mom finished school and started her career.
I was so excited when my mom would come to visit from Moscow for the holidays. She had denim clothes head to toe — nobody had denim clothes in Siberia. My mom wore perfumes and brought dolls that were beyond my imagination. When she was done with school, she was ready to have me join her on that tour bus.
For many, traveling is a getaway. For me, it was an opportunity to be with my awesome mom and her awesome friends, and to be behind the scenes of where the magic happens — and it was way more fun than living with my grandma in a small Siberian town.
Even though I didn’t know it back then, I believe this is when I found my passion for travel.
In the ’80s, traveling abroad from Russia was not allowed. But in 1992, after the Iron Curtain in the communist USSR was toppled, we were able to travel to neighboring countries. This is when my parents started a business — selling leather and fur coats that they bought from China and Turkey. When I was around 10 years old, I was invited on one of their trips to Turkey.
I remember everything about that first trip, down to the smell of the airplane. Back then, passengers were allowed to smoke on airplanes, and every adult made sure to take advantage of this opportunity to the fullest. It was nearly impossible to see through the cloud of smoke in the cabin. I didn’t mind it at all, though, I thought it was absolutely fascinating.
Turkey is a home to a unique blend of European and Middle Eastern cultures, with a rich history spanning thousands of years. After we took care of business and bought the leather goods, we explored ancient ruins, a stunning blue mosque and bustling bazaars.
The most amazing part was the fact that despite the differences in the way we looked and spoke, people were so welcoming, making us feel like home. I remember that my dad’s business partners were sharing stories in broken English while introducing me to authentic Turkish meals and exotic sweets.
Sitting in the cloud of smoke on the return flight home, I found myself thinking that the world wasn’t scary, as I anticipated prior to this adventure, but instead it was full of kind people, beautiful views and delicious food.
As soon as I turned 18, a legal age to travel solo, I took a trip to Egypt. My destination: Sharm El-Sheikh. With it only being a six-hour flight to good weather year-round, it is a very popular vacation spot amongst Russians.
The first experience I remember is a wild drive to my hotel.
My taxi driver, Ahmed, sped through the streets, honking his horn and swerving around other cars with alarming speed. My heart was racing with fear, but as we continued our journey, I began to realize that there was a method to Ahmed’s madness.
Despite the reckless driving, he seemed to have a sixth sense for the flow of traffic, anticipating every obstacle and navigating through the chaos with remarkable ease. We made it to the hotel extremely quickly. This was an experience I will never forget.
Sharm El-Sheikh is known for its beautiful beaches, clear waters and world class diving sites. It is still one of my favorite vacation destinations. I’ve managed to visit Egypt 10 times since I turned 18.
When buying the tour package, the tourist agent advised to be respectful of local customs and laws while visiting Egypt. He told me to dress modestly, especially if visiting religious sites, and to be aware of any cultural norms that may be different from my own. This conversation made me extra alert to my surroundings.
In Egypt I noticed that there were no local women working in the hotel. After speaking with locals, I found out that even though women were legally allowed to work outside their homes, cultural and societal expectations made it difficult for them to pursue careers in certain sectors of the workforce, including the travel industry.
This discovery made me reflect on my own life and the opportunities that were available to me in my motherland. I was inspired to return and not take them for granted. Considering my passion for travel, I decided to study languages and become an English teacher, so I could help others learn new languages and interact with people from other cultures and to expand their own worldviews.
It took me six years of exploring and traveling to 12 other countries to finally enroll in a program at the Moscow State Linguistic University. Part of the curriculum was a semester abroad, which I decided to take in the United States.
So, my classmate and I went to California and found a great community college in LA. To celebrate, we went to Las Vegas. This is where I met Jered, a young man who approached me poolside at the Hilton hotel and started telling me all about his passion for riding dirt bikes. He was competing in the amateur national arena cross championship in Vegas. I had never seen a dirt bike before, and I thought he was a very cool and an extremely brave American.
Long story short, the very next day, to make sure I could legally stay in America to go on a date with him, he proposed to me. We were eating at a very “not romantic” pizza place at that time, and he got down on one knee and offered me a plastic ring from a coke bottle. I didn’t really respond, so it wasn’t technically a “no.”
I thought he was crazy, but we were having so much fun together — a part of me was actually considering it. A few days later, I accidentally missed my flight back home. In Russia we use military time, so I was still trying to figure out the difference between a.m. and p.m. That day I didn’t succeed, so I was 12 hours late for my 6 a.m. flight.
I thought it was a sign and I was totally into marrying him, but my mom said that I’ve lost my mind and I need to come home. I listened.
Jered and I Zoomed every day. With an eight-hour time difference, I stayed up till 2 in the morning to talk to him. A couple months into our long-distance relationship, I decided to take a semester abroad at the Des Moines Area Community College, near his hometown. Jered and I got married 5 1/2 months after our first meeting in Vegas. We’ve been married for 12 years and have a 5-year-old son, who is already obsessed with traveling just as I am.
Traveling brought transformative experiences into my life. I’ve met so many incredible people, some of them changed my life. I’ve learned that there is not one way of life and even if our ways are not the same, we can still be friends.
If it were not for travel, I wouldn’t be who I am. My parents showed me that the world is bigger than my small Siberian town. My solo travel inspired me to pursue my passion for studying languages, and my first trip to America led me to my husband and a wonderful “Midwest Nice” community in Iowa, which I’m forever grateful for.
Traveling the world with an open heart and a willingness to learn could be a deeply rewarding experience that can broaden your perspective and enrich your life in countless ways.
But keep in mind: What happens in Vegas, doesn’t always stay in Vegas!
More:The Des Moines Storytellers Project: How to buy tickets, tell a story
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Olesya Holker is a wellbeing enthusiast, a documentary filmmaker, a yogi and an adventurer. She migrated from Russia to the United States 12 years ago. Olesya, her husband, Jered, and their 5-year-old son live in Cumming, Iowa. Olesya has a passion for travel and has visited 19 countries.
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