Tag Archives: Russia

Tour thru Mass Graves. Cambodia.

12 Dec

November 27, 2010

As we dance our way into the sexy topics of mass graves and genocide – something I’m sure you’ve been breathlessly anticipating – we need to take a step back and do a quick 411 on  Mr. Pol Pot, the man responsible for exterminating 1.7 to 2 million – or  1/4th of the Cambodian population in the 70’s and 80’s.

Quick Soundbite: Mr. P. Pot and his four BFFers led Cambodia’s ruling communist party from 1975 to 1979, under the name of the Khmer Rouge (KR).   The dates answer the question of why there was not a global outcry for his “social engineering” policies.  You see,  it was prime time BOLTING from Vietnam time.    We were leaving as Mr. P. Pot was confiscating Cambodians and Mr. Ho Chi Chi was victimizing South Vietnamese.

More specifically, Mr. P Pot’s mission was to exterminate Cambodia’s intellectual class — capitalists, civil servants, city dwellers, educated…. Buddhist monks, former government officials, soldiers…ethnic minorities like Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams (Muslims), Thais…  Only the farmers and poor peasants were permitted to live.

Pol Pot’s “social engineering eradication”  is up there with the other “great” genocides. We have Stalin who starved over seven million Ukrainians  from 1932 to 1933 by confiscating their entire harvest.  And, then polished off around 30 to 40 million Russians who thought he was ugly.

Then there is Turkey who purged over 1.5 million Armenian Christians – more than half their population – and seized 90% of their land.  In the US, we hear a lot about the 6 million Jews who perished at the the hands of the Nazis from 1938 to 1945. But eliminating the Jews, gypsies, gays and any other misfits were just one part of Hitler’s plan to create a more secure, ethnically homogeneous state.

Hitler removed and transplanted about 12 million Germans. Those that survived, resettled in Eastern Europe, Russia…. After WWII, Poland, Czech, Hungry, Romania and Yugoslavia booted all Germans.  Estimates say over 2.1 million Germans died from hunger, cold, disease…after WWII…in route back to Germany.

We can go on and on for we’ve haven’t even touched Mao’s golden touch in China or the continent of Africa.  I say this because while Cambodia is gruesome and tragic, this people purging is not new or novel. Fascist, nationalist megalomaniacs or religious zealots have ethnically cleansed, removed or transferred groups of people since the Middle Ages, if not before. We did it to the Native Americans.

What I struggle with is why don’t we learn. Why do we commit the same atrocities. Using the same tactics. Same justifications. Same rationale. Why?

While in Israel, I toured the Holocaust museum with my East German friend. We were in the room detailing how Nazi’s confined, starved and killed Polish Jews.  She said, “Just change the word Warsaw Ghetto to Palestinian Ghetto and that’s the West Bank today…Don’t you see that?  I mean, come on….”

At Auschwitz in Poland, I toured the concentration camp with over 100  Israeli soldiers.  God placed them there. I felt it. I was so angry at Israel that I could not even write about her – publicly – after my visit in August. And, I had to giggle, for only weeks later, I’m touring a concentration camp with her military protectors.  I knew what it meant.

I followed the soldiers. Observed. And, wondered what they were thinking when touring the chambers where Nazis forced the Jews, gypsies, gays – for being born into the “wrong” group – to stand for days at at time. Or, were shoved in small cells in solitary confinement. Or, given only one small meal a day….

From what I have read, Israeli prisons employ the same type of tactics today.  So, what were they thinking? I mean, were they justifying treatment of the Palestinians with the same nationalistic zeal as the Nazis? I  don’t know. I just don’t know… Again, history continues to repeat herself…

I write this and ask.  Ok.  So, what can we do?  What we CAN do is one thing.  What we DO, do is another.  If history is any predictor of the future, then here’s the deal.

We stand back.  Let others deal.  We watch.  And, we wait.  We wait twenty or thirty years for the Palestinian, Iraqi or Guantanamo Bay prison museum to open.  We wait for the historians to tell us what “really happened.”  We pay our $5 to walk thru mass graves.  To tour killing chambers.   And, to be shocked by the torture.  Appalled by the death.  And, vow never to let something like “this” happen again.

But, for now we just wait.

I’ve got my $5 ready, do you?

Map – Trans Siberian Train Route

25 Sep

For those who want to check out the Trans Siberian train route.

More detailed map of the Trans-Siberian Rail below…

Getting out of Russia…

24 Sep

After our jaunt at Lake Baikal. And, after my four hour power nap and eight hour night sleep, we loaded on a bus and made our way back to Irkutsk. Yes, I saw Lake Baikal. But, its a lake. There was only so much to see. And, after my harrowing train experience the night before – no sleep and planning for an escape plan as conductor on crack hurls us off a cliff – my body needed sleep or it was going doooooowwwnnn.

I mentioned in the other blog, Irkutsk is the one place in Siberia I could see myself living. THAT being said, I don’t see myself in Siberia at all. Just want that in writing. My tendency is to smile. Their tendency is to sigh. This spells unhealthy relationship.

But, if someone was threatening to peel the skin off my big toe and was forcing me to choose a town in Siberia, then I would choose Irkutsk. First, it has a train station. And, I’m growing very fond of trains. Second, it’s a 45 minute drive to Lake Baikal – Siberia’s Lake Placid. Third, the residents have rewritten history. You are forced to believe everything is “sunny” in Siberia. The word Gulag has been erased from their vocabulary. Stalin’s name is …. just a name. And, President Dmitry Medvedev recently honored WWII heroes by a free apartment life for fighting for freedom in the Great War. Freedom? Freedom from what – I would counter the boggie man was Stalin’s purges not the Germans hiking to Siberia for a booty call.

Yes, life is good in Irkutsk. They’re preparing a large celebration for its 300 year old birthday. FYI, you’re invited. The government is pumping in money to restore buildings, roads…just in time for happy dance.

Yes, the Lenin statue still looms large at the center of town. But, the ingenious Irkutsks gussied him up and planted smiley purple, yellow and red flowers around his feet to deflect from the “You go to Gulag” look. Pigeons have found his fist pointing to the sky a perfect repository for their poop. Lenin is fairing well in this land of make-believe.

In real history, Stalin purged the Irkutsk people… and their churches. He sent those who disagreed with him to one of the work labor camp (Gulag) right down the road. Or, his peeps just killed them. I read some place he demolished over 200 Orthodox churches in Irkutsk but kept around 50 around. Could be wrong. Let’s just say, it was a lot. It was Stalin’s custom to convert the more purposeful churches into productive places – stables, storage or shelter for the Red Army….

One Russian Orthodox church we visited was converted into a bakery. Can you imagine Irkutsks heading to work at the local Orthodox church to roll dough among ornate byzantine murals depicting the life of Christ, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. It just makes me smile.

After our “drive-by” tour, Anna – our Irkutsk tour guide – let us go. We’re free to roam. OF COURSE, our fearless Mongolian leader, Mash takes us to another fucking cafeteria for lunch. Cafeteria’s aren’t even popular in Siberia…I mean, come on dude… It’s all about cost with Mash…Not about the experience.

Screw it. I had a slice of pizza. Cheaper and better. Bacteria wise, who knows. My stomach has been rocked for a good week now – so, what’s the difference. Let’s add some more people to the party and let them fight it out. Let’s just hope I’m close to a toilet when the blow up occurs.

After the food, I spied a Diet Coke. I thought it was counterfeit. I almost shit in my pants. (FYI: Just had coffee laced with real sugar and real cream. I’m high right now… Typing fast…bad language is spewing…This is a warning for my 4.5 fans – two of which are Mom and Dad). Back to shitting in pants. I almost did a flip. I ran over. I wanted to give this street vendor all my money and bow down. I’ve not had a DC in 5 days now. Instant coffee just SUCKKKKKKS. I bought two DCs and was coming back for more later. Now, do you understand why I could live in this Siberian place? They even have DC!

After the gang inhaled meat soaked in pans of grease, MASH went his way and we rolled off into the sun set. The day was nice. Sunny. Very Sunny. All we cared about was breathing fresh air and getting some Vitamin D. We walked through parks. Went to a market. Strolled to cafes. Just killing time until our train left for Mongolia. I believe we were setting off around 8:00 pm or so.

We found a river. Well, the river found us since the city is built on one. We sat our carb enriched asses on the steps by the river front and starred at the water. We watched a train go by carrying a billion dollars worth of oil. I start making – from what I thought was – profound comments about Russia, Siberia, Oil, Business, Oligarchs, Politics…hoping someone in this group would engage. I needed an intellectually stimulating conversation– I was jonesing, baby. Nope. All silent. They all took pictures of themselves and I mumbled to myself. Seriously. Mumbled about Siberia. And, rich Russians doing prison time.

Back to trial matters. There was a Mom and Kids play group forming. I watched them. More importantly, I was checking out their strollers. No jogging strollers for these moms. They probably don’t sell them in Siberia. The strollers encasing their newborns were the same style I used for my baby dolls when I was a child. Wait, these were a foot or two taller. But, you get my drift. Wow. Again, tried to have a conversation about baby strollers – Any takers? NOPE. So, I took pictures to send to friends at home with a caption saying, “your life could be worse.” The wheels on these strollers were metal and are in need of some serious shock absorbers. One mom had twins, so her stroller was very interesting looking. The babies were bundled up in blankets with a thick plastic sheet over them. Nice. Nice. Nice. Don’t want to read into this.

Next on our day, was sauntering down to the cafe on the water. Bathroom? Kiki and I asked the bartender lady the toilet location. She sighed. Sighed again. She did not answer. So, I started using all the words I know for toilet. “Toil-et? To-lite? WC? Water Closet? Ba-th room? Pee Pee?” I just kept on saying words until she responded. Come on lady. We’re women here. You’re a bartender serving liquids. We need to pee, NOW.

She walked slowly over across the bar. She’s in NO rush. Turned down the Russian, depressive music and look at us again. Her actions told us that she did not “hear us.” Once again, I started with enunciating toilet. She starred. Sighed. Pointed up the stairs. The stairs led you OUT of the park. Let me say this again – out her restaurant and out of the park. Really. We have to hoof it out of the park to pee.

Kiki and I smiled. Well, this will be an adventure. We start walking. Around 4 minutes later – Yes, we’re out of the park on a street corner – there was a brown shack, two wooden doors and window in the middle. An older lady was sitting inside. Staring at us walking towards her. Kiki – Norwegian girl – and I smile. We’re doomed. We smiled. Old lady sighed and pointed to a sign. Cost ten rubles to pee. I will pay almost anything for a clean bathroom. I happily handed her the rubbles and walked into the temple of relief. GEEZ. Stink—a-rama. I paid for this. I wrapped my scarf around my face, twice. Peeing like a terrorist. I could hear Kiki trying to talk to the woman. Bathroom woman claims not to have change… Right. It’s a con. Kiki is not letting down. She needs her change. I busted the door open and fled for clean air. I turned around, Kiki walked in. Her eyes bulged. I giggled. Waited. The poor woman has to smell this shit all day long. What about the winter time – UGH.

We head back to the friendly cafe. The boys ordered beer. Apparently they are having a quarrel about getting change back from the happy bar tender. We drank beer. And, bolted back to the hotel. They’re hungry. I caught up on internet stuff. I meet them at the London Pub restaurant inside the hotel. They are downing pizza. Damn, looks good. I have an hour until the bus leaves for the train. I order a pizza. We all chat – drink beers – talk about how poor we are… It’s 10 minutes until the bus leaves. I ask AGAIN for my pizza. “It’s coming. Three minutes…” From the look on their faces, they forgot – again. Or the chef is on a cig break. Either way, pizza is in jeopardy.

I pay for the pizza. Go upstairs. Grab my bags. Put bags on the bus. Go back inside to get the pizza. I gave them 7 or 8 minutes. The waitress says “five more minutes.” I told her, “I want my money back. Sorry. Bus is leaving. Need to catch a train to Mongolia.” Money in hand, now, please. I pulled the American card. She looked panicked. The hostess and the coat guy, had the “we don’t give a crap look.” So, no urgency to please from those two customer service award winners. I followed the waitress back to the kitchen. She is screaming at the cook. He moves like molasses. No, he’s not fat. No, he’s not in bad health. He’s just Russian. He looks at the oven. Pulls the oven door down. Looks in. Utters 2 words. I look at him, her and say – “What?”

He takes out the pizza – like he has all the time in the world. He puts the pizza on the table. Next, he meanders across the kitchen looking for a box. This size won’t work… That size …. not sure. He starts to make one box, puts it aside. I’m about to come out of my friggin skin. I breath. I’m about to hurl my body over the counter top and make the damn box myself. I asked God for patience. Uh, nothing is happening. Instead, my blood is boiling. The waitresses smiles and says, “I understand.” I bet those are the two words they grilled in their heads at London Pub restaurant training. “If you say, I understand, those foreigners will back down… Act like you care…”

What felt like a zillion years, the chef finally hands me my pizza with an annoyed look on his face. He sighs. Waitress signs. I run. No thank you from me, lady. Yet, I almost felt myself say, “sorry” but something inside yanked that word out of my mouth. That’s a red flag. Russia is getting her claws into me…

I sprinted to the bus. It’s in the negative Celsius range at this point. I’m sweating. My travel buds are all waiting. I sit, the bus drivers bolts for the train station. The pizza is too hot to eat. When I open the box in the station, the cheese and mushrooms are piled on one side of the box and the bread is on the other. I have no napkin. Forks. Nothing. I bet the chef planned this. Knew if the box moved, his toppings are going to slide right off. Screw him. I’m eating it anyway. I’ll just burn my finger tips and shove in the food like a good, classless, American pizza eater.

We boarded the train for Mongolia. It’s a nice train. I was expecting worse. Well, the bathrooms were worse but overall, nice train. The goal was to arrive the next day at the Russian border so they can kick us foreigners to the curb for good. The train ride was less frantic. The conductor must have kept his vodka and crack habitat to a minimum that night. We did not shake as much, and I actually slept for a few hours. I woke – felling refreshed and narley. Typical train feeling.

So, Russian border crossing. We pull up at the border. They make it difficult. Imagine that… Everyone must get off. “You come back in three hours. Bags stay on train.” In Russian border town, you don’t have many options to kill time.

Here’s the quick run down — One small train station to sit and stare through the reinforced, dust-laden windows. One toilet, with a hole in the floor where you must pay to stand. One food mini-market shalepping sausages, potatoes, noodles in Styrofoam cups, 1990s snicker bars, Fanta and water. One cafe reeking of compost or animal flesh. One outdoor market selling counterfeit Chinese crap. One hill to hike to overlook the city. One cemetery adorned in turquoise wire, fake Christmas wreathes and broken vodka bottles.

A few of us choose the hill option. We needed to stretch our legs. And, our lungs were yearning for fresh molecules. We hiked to the top. Sat and watched more billion dollar oil tankers pass by. I should have counted the cars. I’m talking about 200 or 300 train cars full of oil passing through. I’m talking about wood. I’m talking about cars full of coal. This town is poor, but liquid gold passes through its borders every day. Can I please have a conversation with someone about this?

And, the dead people. They really do buried their dead in style. Cemetery plots look like play pins for kids. All decorated in turquoise. Dried flowers. Fake Christmas wreathes. Pictures of the dead. They’re must be hundreds buried. The dates are more recent. It’s one of taboo subjects. So, I just took pictures. Probably jolted some spirits.

Three hours later, we boarded. And, sat in our micro-mini train compartments. And waited for the Russian agents. Someone who thought it was f-u-nny, yelled “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Off to a good start.

Just a quick aside, the Russians locked the toilets. And, then you’re locked in the train compartment. So, there’s no bathrooms. No escaping for a minimum of 3 hours. We ran into a Canadian who said they waited for over 9 hours for the Russians to process everyone. Damn, no access to a toilet or a hole in the ground for a very, very long time. We talked about buying adult diapers as a joke… We had bets on who in our group is going to pee in their pants first… Not me. I drink Super Big Gulps for a living. Big girl. Big bladder. Big time.

So, here comes Mr. Sunshine. First Russian agent, opens the door and blurts “passport.” He then, sighs with annoyance. Us – the tourons – are just not fast enough. We’re still fumbling. He’s still sighing. It’s a nation of sighers. Russian agent grabs the passports, leafs through them. Finds the Visa. Hands back the passports.

I’m sharing a train car with our fearless tour leader, Mash from Mongolia. Now, remember, he’s in charge of taking 15 folks across Russia via Siberian land. Russian agent starts to grill Mash in Russian. He’s Mongolian. Mongolians are known for smuggling goods in and out of Russia. Russians don’t like them. Mash, who speaks barely any Russian, becomes nervous. He starts to answer in English. Russian agent looks even more hostile. There’s more sighing. English language, I sense, is the enemy…

Mash looks confused. Blinks his eyes. I just stare. I’m not opening my mouth yet. I’m the hated American. I’m traveling with the “I don’t get involved” Canadian. She neutralizes me. I sit. Watch. Become annoyed with Gap Adventures, again. I mean, COME ON!

A business has employed a Mongolian who speaks very little Russian to take 15 people across an inaccessible, hostile Russia on a train. Not only that, Mongolians have the reputation to smuggle goods into and out of Russia. The agents are going to question every and all Mongolians – no matter what.. Period. Now, that’s fine. But, what happens Russian agent man decides they want to detain Mash. They could do it. Detain him. For no reason. And, keep him for as long as they want. Then, what? What would Gap Adventures do? What do we do? Just keep moving on.. Just curious. I mean, COME ON people. I’m loosing faith in this company more and more by the minute.

Russian agent keeps grilling. Mash asks to write his answers down. He slowly looks for a pen. Maria hands him one. The Russian agent looks like he’s going to smack Mash up side the head any moment. Apparently the agent was asking about what he was doing, on what days, etc. You would think he would know this – being a guide and all. And, would think all of this information would be in a folder. Nope. After Mash answers his question, the door closes. We look at Mash. “Does this happen often? I mean, are you embarrassed every time?” He just says, “yea….” And, leaves it at that.

Russian agent #2 comes in and collects our passports and leaves. We all just sit and wait. And wait. About two hours later, more agents get on the train. They ask us to leave our compartments so they can search the place. It takes a few minutes. Not a big deal. Hour three going into hour four, our passports are returned to us. There is no smile. No “safe travels.” No nothing. They just hand it back and walk on… Yea, screw you too. Mash says, “You can’t get back into Russia now. You’re in no man’s land…until Mongolia…” Hopefully in no man’s land, they smile. And, better yet, let’s hope they let you go pee.

Day 4 – TSR… Huh??

22 Sep

Trans-Siberian. Last night.

My last night on the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Irkust was from hell. I really thought the train was going to tip over. Winds were ripping. Train was gunning. Our compartment was jumping. The train took corners so fast that luggage, vodka bottles and lonely planet books rolled back and forth like they’re gliding on ice. Everyone in my train car was asleep. Zonked. Snoring. How can they sleep through this. The conductor is on crack. He’s about to flip this thing. Any moment. They need to get ready…to bolt.

I’m getting sick. Fever sick. Stomach sick. Four days of recycled air. What do you expect. Mom – just skip this blog – I’m talking about those things unbecoming of a young, classy woman. Yes, I’ve gotten an email from her telling me tone down my bathroom talk. So, Mom, jump over this blog. It’s all about the trials and tribulations of traveling… Digesting and disseminating bacteria is part of the ride.

I believe my bacteria born stomach illness is due to an over indulgence in pancakes. Not our I-Hop pancakes, but Russian pancakes. What I’ve found in Russia is any piece of bread that is fried in oil or butter is considered a pancake. They fry a lot of bread here. The bigger cities have a fast food joint serving just pancakes. Though, fast food pancake is equivalent to a crepe in my world. Thin dough is fried and you have options of cheese, pork, mushrooms, gravy, chocolate, bananas – whatever you want – to stuff in the middle. AWESOME! And, it’s cheap.

On the train platforms in Siberia, there’s no crepe pancake option. You only have the thick dough fried pancake option. Think Pizza Hut pan pizza but with fluffier flour. Outside is a thick dough. Inside, you may have minced meat, cabbage, potatoes or eggs. The first ten pancakes rock. The second ten, rocked my stomach.

So, it’s in the middle of the night. It’s the last night on this portion of the Trans-Siberian. We’re stopping in Iskurk and heading to Lake Baikal after this. Can’t wait to stop rocking. Can’t wait for a bed. Can’t wait for a shower. After disinfecting and enjoying the lake, we’re back on the train for two nights in route to Mongolia. Thinking of getting back on a train, when I’m still on the train, makes me want to hurl. Damn, this train is rocking.

Crack conductor is taking a corner at high speed. I hear the wind. Thank God I can’t see outside. I envision cliffs and nothingness. Why not do something productive with my insomnia. I’m going to work on an escape plan for when he flips the train. What’s the hardest thing I have. My lap top. I’ll use it to bash the window. I’m seriously concerned here. It’s like trying to sleep on the Hulk or Spider-man at Universal. Unless you’ve consumed kegs of vodka, there’s no rest for the sober. I’m up for the night.

I find my flip flops and flip to the toilet. It’s not as bad as you think. The smell doesn’t make you dry heave. There seems to be toilet paper. And, train lady seems to empty the trash occasionally. It’s all a a positive in my book. I go inside. Lock the door. The train slows down. Shit. No pun intended. When the train stops, it means that the bathrooms shut down. Why? Because they have police checking under the cars for smugglers. They have a man using a pipe to bash all the metal under the train, checking for leaks. The bathroom crap-ola flushes on to the tracks. So, the police or pipe man does not want shit on their head when their trying to do their job. I hear her. It’s too late. Train lady locks me into the bathroom. It’s 4:00 am. Great. I have to go – can’t – have to wait for the train to move. I’m just praying to the Temples of Relief that this train stop is minutes not hours. I wait. I need to move. I start doing squats. I stretch. I look in the mirror and count new wrinkles. I look deep into my eyes and read them – tired, tired, sick, tired, get me out of here. That’s what they’re saying. About 5 minutes go by. We are standing still.

I hear banging on the underbelly of the train. They are using a pipe or something. I hear them banging under this bathroom. I don’t move. I don’t want them to know I’m in there. Don’t know why – but feel like I’ll get in trouble. I mean, I’m locked in the bathroom in Siberia. Now, I start to laugh. I have to laugh to buy time. Why didn’t I bring reading material. You can only look at a toilet for so long. What feels like hours, but maybe another 5 minutes goes by, the train starts to move. Slowly. Now, the conductor is moving like a snail. I have to dump and he’s just ruising. We start to gain speed. I hear train lady unlock my door from the outside. OK. I can use the bathroom. Nice. And, let’s celebrate that I brought my own toilet paper too. Thank you Temples of Relief.

We pulled up at the station in Istruk around 5:30 AM. The Young Bucks slumbered out. We’re in a haze. No one slept. But, I was the lucky one that pulled the all nighter. Off the train, straight to the bathroom and dry-heaved. My body was pushing out the contaminated air and straining for the clean stuff. We loaded a bus to Lake Baikal. Anna met us. She’s our Russian tour leader. The Young Bucks resemble zombies – out of it.

At 6:30 am, Anna kicks the tour into full force. She plugs in the bus microphone. Turns the volume up. And, begins to tell us how wonderful life is in Siberia. How her town is having their 300 year celebration next year and we are all invited. How the recent president gave all WWII vets a free apartment for their bravery and for ensuring freedom for her country. PAUSE. I’m sick. Tired. And, train-hung over. But, freedom? Please define freedom. Her statement goes back to Russian’s revisionist history. Stalin built one of the largest Siberian work camps (Gualegs) a few miles from here and took out another 30 or so million after WWII. Is this freedom? I looked around the bus. Does anyone I’m traveling with listening? No. Young Bucks are tired. And, Anna is talking so fast it sounds like one big, fat run on sentence to them. They’ve tuned her out. Revisionist history marches on.

Driving to Lake Baikal reminded me a lot of Lake Placid and Maine. The leaves are changing from green to yellow. The roads are curvy. Desolate. The lake is the size of our 5 Great Lakes combined. Let’s just say it is HUGE. And, its deep. (insert)

The older houses – or shacks – are all made out of wood. I love the architecture. The windows are orange and colorful . And, they all have mounds of firewood stacked outside. If there is a fire, then they are screwed. No fire insurance in these parts. I bet it is so cold in the winter.

We arrive to the Russian home of – I can’t remember their names… They greet us. They have a two story home built for travelers like us. Passing through and wanting a home cooked meal. We were so excited for heat, shower and breakfast. First thing, we ate breakfast – yogurt, crusty bread, stale cheese, salami and water melon. I ate 3 yogurts, then ran upstairs to dry heave again. I showered. It felt so good.

My hair had not seen suds in 4 days. Body either. The water turned the color of my hair – diswater, dirty brown. Glorious! I disinfected and willed myself downstairs. So tired. So sick. Already popped a Cipro. I had to stop the growth of bacteria in my stomach.

We all head out to the Lake. It’s cold. Like 40 or so. It felt good. Fresh air. We walked along a dirt path, passing mini-farms, wooden homes and ferrel dogs. Once at the lake, we decided to rent a boat for an hour or so cruise. We were in search of seals. My word, we’re near the arctic. So, it’s time for some seals. The boat was old. Big. And, the skipper slept on it. I was cold, so I hung out on his bed as I watched him steer the ship. Cig out of his mouth. I don’t think he’s bathed in a while either. I was become so drowsy, I was about the fall asleep in his wool, smelly blanket.

Boat ride over. The Lake tour reminded of me of Maine and Lake Placid without large houses. I bet in 3 to 5 years from now this place will be teaming with tourists and large homes. It’s prime. It’s ready. It’s the soon to be Siberian summer get away.

We were hungry. Again. There is NO way we’re paying more than $5 for lunch, so we end up at a pancake/pastry shop. More fried bred. I think this was more like fried bread donuts for this bread was very, very thick. The last thing my stomach wanted was fried bread. Well, whatever. I ordered fried bred with rice and eggs.

I ate it. Looked up and saw two men carrying WSJ bags speaking Russian. I wonder if they are reporters or just killed a reporter. I’m kidding. It got me thinking. Traveling reporter? I’m not sure if Lake Baikal is their market – yet. There is not much here yet. Americans are so demanding. We expect people to understand the word for toilet – and Russians – they are not there yet. No joke. You should see us trying to mime toilet to waitresses. Or, they could be reporting on Lake Baikal’s Siberian rich. Or, the bag could have been a present. I had fun fantasizing.

After lunch, Fredrick from Sweden and I headed back to our home to nap. My body was dead. I slept for 4 hours, woke at 8 for dinner – smoked fish and mash potatoes – and went back to bed. My body was like THANK YOU!

Today, we walked around Isturk. I could live here – well, let me put it in context. If I had to live in Siberia, I could live here. Cute town. Fresh air. Great markets. The people here have a strong Asian look. Beautiful. Because it is mixture of the ice blue Russian eyes, black hair and round faces. I could not stop starring at them. The men are not as cute – for they’ve been into the vodka for many years and they are carrying the more bloated look. Someone said their life expectancy is closer to 60 because of the drinking. I certainly saw the Russian drinking on the train.

Now, I’m sitting on another train. It’s late. We’ve stopped someplace. Everyone in my compartment is asleep. The train is running slower – thank goodness. Tomorrow around 11 am or so, we hit the Russian border. They lock all the bathrooms and make you stay in the train. It could take 3 hours or 9 hours – it’s up to the police. They call this border day. After we cruise through Russia, we hit Mongolia. Mongolia is the same for border. Mongolia recently changed and said that US does not need VISA. I hope they got the memo for that is not what they’ve heard on the street. My thought is – If US VISA does not work, then plastic VISA will. One way or the other, it will be an adventure.

MASH – our fearless tour leader who is from Mongolia – does not know. Nice. I don’t trust he could get me out of a Mongolian prison.

They say a snow storm is approaching and they just turned on the air condition. Looks like I’m getting sick for sure.

More to come tomorrow. Need to get my rest….

Day 3 – TSR…It’s running together

22 Sep

Day three or four.

It’s now all running together. I’ve slept three nights on the train, that I know. We bounce.  We rock.  We drink.  And, the train forces us into a spacey haze. My fellow travelers – the young bucks – have a routine. They wake, drink coffee, eat noddles, take a nap, eat noodles, drink tea, take a nap, drink vodka, eat noodles, drink beer, sing songs, drink vodka, eat noodles… then go to bed.

My routine is – wake early, head to restaurant car, hang with Mark from London, drink black coffee, eat rice porridge with cream and butter, drink coffee, write, read about Siberia…. get off at a stop, walk around, stretch my legs, buy dumplings with cabbage, water and bread… make coffee, graze on nuts, learn how to play poker, win at Swedish card games, drink beer, eat bread, drink warm beer, eat bread, down shots of vodka, sing songs, brush my front tooth and go to bed… No naps here. The lull of the train does not make sleepy, it invigorates me because we are moving – traveling across Siberia. I don’t want to miss anything.

We’ve traveled through four time zones. Yes, as

I look out the dusty window, all I see is distance. Inaccessible. Cold. Distance. The word Siberia, to me, means distant and detached. I read some place if Siberia were detached from Russia, it would still be the largest country on earth. It’s bigger than US, Alaska and western Europe combined. In the Siberian town of Yekaterinburg was where the last Russian Czar – Nicolas I and his family – were slaughtered by the Soviets. They tried to get rid of all traces of their body, but transport broke down and they did not have enough acid…or so the story goes. Years and years later, the bones were discovered and confirmed that his entire family and servants were brutally murdered. Stalin to Yeltsin and rulers in between wanted to destroy the house where this brutal murder took place so it would not become a tourist destination or shrine. I’m learning that the Soviets recreated or rewrote history as it best suited their interests. No one really knows what happened after Lenin and before Putin.

Looking out the window – old, dilapidated wooden houses fly by. Blue, orange and green chips of paint rest on the wooden fences and window panes. The color adds some energy to the landscape’s dreariness. Small farms of cabbage, potatoes and more cabbage are in neat rows. From where I sit, the homes are built for small people – like leprechauns and not amazons. Smoke billows out. It looks cold. It is cold. I wonder about insulation. When temperatures reaches -45 F or -75 F, how do they stay warm? Hot water? I’m from Florida, so this type of cold frightens me.

Siberian became the peasants Wild East. It was born out of optimism and dissent. They came here to own land. Farm it. Provide for their families. The father east they traveled, the government and church tentacles became less choking. Siberian solitude set them free….Until Stalin. It reminds me of our settlers of our Wild Wild west – self-reliant, realistic, stubborn…and loathed corrupt governments and churches.

Misty rain. The train lumbers over more bridges. I think we are going around 75 mph. The train keeps moving. We have fourteen stops today. We’re moving through some of the richest oil fields and natural resources in the world. But, it’s all so distant. Life out here feels heavy. Heavy.

My blond waitress serves me porridge. Today, it’s not really porridge buy white rice with a large chunk of butter. Looks like they did not have time to mash it. No worries. Rice and butter and black coffee works for me.

Last night, my compartment roomies had dinner in the restaurant car. Yes, we splurged. Some Russians were doing shots of vodka and started dancing with the waitresses. They could barely stand up. Old men. Pudgy. Big bellies. Pitted, inflamed red skin. Dry hands. Clothes – what looked like – cake in dirt and cement. They could have been the train workers. Next to them were some Dutch travelors downing vodka. By this time, our table put down two bottles of wine and we’re moving on to hot beer.

WE had no idea of the time. I believe we went back to our comparements around 1 or 2 am. I woke around 4:30 am – at a train stop – having to go to the bathroom. Well, the rule is you can’t flush the toliets when the train stops. Yikes… the reason is that it spills out on the train track. I could hear men mumbling in Russian and tapping on the train canisters. They were checking to see if anyone is stowed away underneath. I was praying that this stop was 3 mins or so. Nope. No suck luck. I paced back and forth down the hallway in my striped stocks, tights and oversized night shirt. Willing this train to move. I looked out the window and watched the train police check under the trains. And, circle it. What an awful job. In the middle of freezing Siberia, checking for stow aways at 4:30 am. The train finally starts to lurch forward. I run into the restroom and shut the door. It lurches to a stop right when I flush. DAMN. I hope I did not spray anyone. Fearful, I bolted out of the restroom and into my mini-compartment. Safe. I feel back asleep.

I woke a few hours later to the train stopping again. It was 7 AM or 11 AM, depending on who you asked. I put on my boots, sweater and ran out the door. I have 15 mins of freezing freedom – to buy dumplings, bread, water and dry fish. (Not buying dry fish!) Everyone hurries off the train with the same thing in mind. I see two young, dirty guys who look like they’ve been partying all night sprint from the train to the mini-store. Moments later, they are running back to the train with four oversized beers in hand. Man, they must have been partying all night – and decided to continue on throughout the day. I wanted to applaud them. And, applaud the fact my room is not next to theirs.

We wake early tomorrow – around 5 AM – and go to Lake Baikal for a few days. We’re off the train. I can’t wait to take a shower. My hair has gone from dishwater to dirt brown. I see fragments of blond. Oil is good for the hair. Or, so they say. I’ve been using baby wipes to wash. I don’t feel as nearly as I thought. But, I certainly don’t have the “fresh” feeling either. If I can keep me breath fresh, then I feel good.

After Lake Baikal, we get back on the train for Mongolia. I believe it is an overnight train as well. A few days in Mongolia, and then down to China. Strange. Very strange. I enjoy the quiet time. Just sitting. Writing. Talking. There is something isolating about it all – Just like Siberia. You’re absorb by its silent isolation.

Day 1 – Trans-Siberian Rail… Across Russia

22 Sep

Load’em up.

I’m sitting in the restaurant cart on the Trans-Siberian train, final destination is Beijing. Wow. I’m really at a loss for words. Wow.

I’m going to first describe where I am now at 11:25 am on Tuesday, September 14. Then, I’ll elaborate on how booth #3 became my trans-Siberian resting place.

The train is surprisingly nice. We’re in second class, meaning we have a door to our compartment and restrooms are in walking distance. Our car was “made in China,” an upgraded 1950s Russian model. Just don’t know how to describe it. I’ll take pictures. It’s a typical train.

The Russian restaurant car is another story. It’s old. Actually, it is more in line as to what I expected. Worn floors with patches of orange and blue spec terrazzo. (Go Gators…) Eight mini-booths – four on each side of the car – seating either two American contestants of the Biggest Looser or six Russian women.

As I look around, I’m not sure if it’s ever had a deep cleaning. Windows need a strong dousing of ammonia. The double pane windows are forced shut and the mold wanting to grow in the corners has turned to a lifeless brown. Russia appears dusty.

A Russian emblem rests at the windows base to give the room an air of elegance. The tables are wooden with a polyester gold and crimson fabric stretching over its top. (Go Seminoles…) When the sun hits the booth seats, it shines a winter, plastic green. There are two waitresses, showing off their magnificent cleavage under their tight, white button down shirts. The black tight skirts accent their grandma-looking underwear, and the nude Haynes hose conceal their narley feet in the black open toe sandal. Heavy black make-up line their eyes and it looks like they both are wearing the same crimson color lip stick. One is blond. She’s about 4’11 and round. The other wears the amber/red hair dye and is 5’5 in stature. Heaviness, bewilderment and annoyance are the three expressions they wear best.

Our waitresses don’t “look” Moscow or St. Petersburg-ish. They look like single moms, surviving the elements of their Siberian hometown. They landed this gig of riding the Russian rails to support their kids, father of their babies and consume “free” food. Speaking of free food, the cook just walked out. She is the first heavy woman I’ve seen in Russia. Hair slicked in a pony tail. No shoes. Full skirt. Olive green apron. If you sent back your food, she’ll more than likely let you starve.

Music is playing. It’s that damn Eminem song. It must be popular in the WWII countries. I hear it all the time. I sit in the restaurant car by myself sipping on coffee and nibbling on a chocolate muffin I did not order. I asked for milk and got a chocolate muffin with chocolate shavings. O’well. There is condensed milk somewhere inside the thing. Can’t and won’t send it back. I want to eat later.

It’s fall. Leaves are changing. We’re ambling by old Russian towns. Homes made out of wood and tin roofs. We’re passing by industrial plants and buildings. I’m thinking of cold winters.And, I can’t but think of Stalin’s campaign to kill and murder Russian traitors. How in the world was it possible for him to kill up to 30 million – some estimates say as high as 50 million – Russians pre and post WWII. I would have thought people living out in these providence would have killed his soldiers or his men. But, the civil war was so subversive you just never knew who was a traitor or not, so you just killed… friends, family…anyone who was against the Party. How could he inspire a national identity of Soviets in a country twice as large as America? Its unimaginable in these times – yet still happens today, all around the world.

Let me focus on the train ride and then I can devote time to another blog muddling through killing for the sake of security.

Did I tell you that I’m so happy that I’m here? That I’m having this surreal time. I keep pinching myself. Keep thinking…Is this me? Really?

Yesterday in Moscow was uneventful. The day prior, the Swedes, Canadian and I “did” Moscow. I will tell you more about the Kremlin, Gorky Park and Lenin’s tomb later. Our Moscow hotel is super-touristy. It’s a high rise among other high rises built for the Moscow Olympics in X. Now, fast forward X years, economic rival of this despondent area has not taken hold. We are near a metro stop and a grocery store. So, all is not lost.

 

One of my Moscow hotel highlights involved the all you can eat breakfast buffet. Let me back up for a minute….I’m traveling with a bunch of young bucks from all of the world who either just graduated from college or are in the their late 20’s taking a break from work. Love that…”taking a break from work at 26.” All of them have a tight, tight budget and freak when a meal costs more than $2.50.

No joke. I was there once. When I backpacked in Europe, we had zero cash. Allison, Katie and I resorted to begging for cookies at the Athens airport and serving as “whatever” girls in Greece – bars giving us free drinks if we hung out in their bars. More girls…means more boys…means more money for the bar… So, I get it when they say they are poor and on a budget.

When Young Bucks discussed plans for breakfast this AM, the majority voted to walk over a ½ mile to buy $.35 bread and $.75 cheese. I pulled the “mature” card and said, “Have fun! I’m going upstairs to the breakfast buffet for $11.00 and filling up for the day.” They gave me a puzzled look.

I walked into the restaurant and was in heaven. Two rows of breakfast options. I spotted…coffee stands. Cappuccino stands. Fruit stands. Bread stands. Cheese stands. Sliced meat stands. Salad stands. Pastry stands. Seriously, for $11 this was CHEAP. I must tell you how much I ate in 1 hour. Started with beans and barley. Moved to real omelet – watched her make it – with cheese, ham and chives. Moved on to three scoops of sweat porridge. Back to more barley and beans for the fiber. Four cups of coffee. Tried a Russian pancake with jam. Back to another scoop of porridge. Six slices of water melon. Yogurt and granola for the stomach. And, ended it with water and another cup of coffee. I declined the bread, cheeses, cut meats, salads and corn. It’s all about moderation. So, they hoofed it while I sat and inhaled it. I think I got a better end of the stick because for dinner, I had a lovely banana and yogurt and chased it with three shots of vodka.

Today, the young bucks set out to traverse the Moscow metro to photo all the ornate metro stations. I had zero interest. Though, I must say that the metro is exquisite and one of the most clean to date. For clarification, I don’t remember the Paris metro for I was the college backpacker with over 50 pounds of products and fashion accessories loaded on the back. I walked in a 45 degree angle as I navigated Europe. I don’t recall looking up. I heard Japan and Moscow are the two busiest metros in the world. I believe it.

So, the young bucks left and I spent the afternoon meandering around Moscow and planning my trip in China and Thailand.

We were told by our fearless leader, Mash – Mongolian who is NOT fluent in Russian – that we were to meet at the hotel lobby at 7 pm but must load up with food for the 4 day train ride. He said, “the train’s restaurant car is expensive and paying $2 for water or $3 for a hot meal is truly unacceptable.” Just say no to Russian train extortion. I got caught up in the cheap food and I’m going to starve hysteria as well.

It’s 5:15 pm. I’ve got over an hour to go to the grocery store and organize my bag for the 4 day/night train trip. Mash, our Mongolian fearless leader, pointed out earlier the location of the grocery store where humans can touch food and place them in the carts. You see, the mini-grocery stores store their food behind glass windows and some woman – possibly a former prison guard from Siberia – screams at you when you point to a food product or water.

I walked over to the tall building. Walked in. Can’t read any signs. Didn’t spot any food on the first floor, so I took the escalator up. Second floor is all clothes. Took the next escalator up. Third floor is all lingerie and kids’ toys. Shit. Here we go again. My eyes take in the shoppers’ bags. Do I see cans, boxes, green stuff hanging out of any bag? Nope. There is not a grocery store in this building. Don’t tell me I’m lost. I go back outside and look around.

I walk around the building. I took the bold move and opened a door with no sign and walked down a long hallway. At the end, there was a salon – yes, they’re using scissors – and the grocery store. YEA! It’s now 5:45 pm and I’m back on track. I shove my pack-back in a locker, grab a cart like I own the place and start shopping. I hit produce – bananas, apples, pears, oranges. Who cares if I have to carry this along with my two bags to the train. Next aisle are the nuts and dried fruit. Pricey, but that is fine. I can afford $3 raisins.

Next, I hit the soup and noodle aisle. People warned me about which ones to buy – “don’t buy the soups that say ‘boil’ water. You want instant.” Easy enough if it is in English. So, it was there in the noddle/soup aisle that I tried to translate Russian to English. I spent 10 min comparing Styrofoam cups of noodles. With 23% confidence, I picked a brand. Next was to figure out the flavor. I looked at the pictures, but they all look the same expect a red color here or a brown spot there. Red may mean “pepper” and brown may mean “meat or mushroom.” Time will tell. I’ve never been into the overly salty noodle thing. So, why not start now. In Moscow.

I smiled when my eyes located can foods with a lift open top. Hold the phone. I love can foods. I live off can foods. I jetted down the can food aisle and found what I was looking for – mini-kidney beans, corn and green beans. Perfecto! I will reduce my 12 Styrofoam cups of soup to 3 and substitute with some can food. I’m really happy. I love beans. Love corn. Love lift-off tops. Though, I can already see my fellow travelogue looking at me like I’m “whacked.” O’well. I’m playing the older, mature card right now. It’s fun. I’m finally the “strange one” where they will talk about my eating habits. Spending habits. Consuming canned food habits.

Commercial break. The Trans-Siberian waitresses just cranked up the music in the restaurant car. Loud. It’s sounds like a Russian Fifty-Cent. YO. They are mumbling the music as they pass by. Underneath every booth seat has storage room for food or dead bodies. Duly noted.

Back to the Russian grocery store. Next on the list. Mug. Vodka. Putin mugs were on sale for $2. Who knows what it says – “Death to America!” Or, “I heart Putin!” True bargain. Putin is in the basket.

Then, I hit the vodka aisle. I looked like a super nerd for I whipped out my calculator. Here’s the logic – not paying $4 to $9 for vodka. That equated to severe hangover, regardless of one sip or consuming the entire bottle. I was going for the $10 to $15 range. This assured me some sort of confidence that I would wake up the next day. I choose the vodka that had a lock on it. Looks premium. We’re talking about $12 here. No chasers. Buy that on the train or just drink it straight.

We all met at the hotel lobby. The young bucks were filling me in their metro-train tour details. I told them I spent the day meandering and working on a few client projects. The word “work” surprised them – I could see it in their eyes.

I seriously would love to hear their fabricated stories about me – the mature TallGirl. When you travel, the group becomes BFFers for a set amount of time. Like high school and the workplace, there’s the “cool” crowd and the “uncool” crowd. Uncool are your outcasts or just “damn crazies.” Late at night, after a couple of drinks, you sit around – drink, smoke, laugh – and talk about the uncools like you’ve known them for years. “What’s up with him…she made me buy a coffee for $2.75 today…did you see the size of his backpack…he doesn’t shut up…Typical Canadian….”

We had to take the metro (subway) to the main train station to catch the Trans-Siberian to Beijing. People were throwing their backpacks over their shoulder and I decided, split decision, that I would do the same. That is, carry my pack on my back, instead of rolling it. I had bought the roller suitcase with an option to wear.

I heaved the 40 or 50 lb bag up, over my shoulders and onto my back. My mini-pack was resting on my chest. One hand was carrying my can goods, noodles and fruit and the other hand is gripped to the mini-roll-on. Mash – our Mongolian leader – gave us instructions.

If we loose the group, then get off at stop four. Jump to the brown line. Get off stop 2. Then, walk to the train.

Got it – right. I was not going to loose the crowd so I didn’t pay much attention. Anyway, it was our Mash’s job to ensure he does not loose the group, not the other way around. We set off. After 5 minutes of walk, my breathing got thick and my shoulder joints were poised to snap in two. I focused. Walked. Did not want to hold up the group. I knew we had to buy tickets at the metro. If I made it to the metro, then I could use the rollers – like a normal person.

Hit the metro. Looks like everyone but Maria and me pre-bought their metro (subway) tickets. The group of young bucks walked through the security gates. I yelled at Maria to wait for me. She did. I tried to get the handle up to roll my backpack, but I had bent the metal frame while wearing it on my back. That’s right. Backpack is busted. In the Moscow metro. I busted my backpack. I told myself, I don’ t have many options. Just be calm. I asked God for help. I felt calm. Smiled. Even giggled. This is funny. Found the strength to carry two bags with my hands. Picked them up. And, Maria and I were off to catch up with the young bucks.

Took 56 marble stares down to the metro subway platform. Looked around. Our group is gone. Just us. Maria said she knew what stop. I put my faith in her and tended to my bag. We boarded the metro car and were off. Priority was fiddling and fixing my backpack so the metal arm extends and I can roll my bag. Cold Russian eyes were just staring. Not with curiosity. Not with amusement. Just with blank loathing. Well, I’ll give them this. We looked …like what you expect – crazy.

My guardian angle fixed my bag and the handle sprang up. Just in time. We hit the fourth stop and people were everywhere – pushing, pushing, pushing. It’s the mob mentality. Maria was frantic. I saw it in her eyes. I also saw the buddy system concept of sticking with friends was not in her vocabulary. She jetted off leaving me in the dust. She clamored and push like the rest of them – fighting her way up the escalator. I followed – way behind. My eyes were just focused on her red back pack. Up the escalator and out of the building we went. What? We are not suppose to be outside. This stop is where we transfer to the brown line, not our final destination. My bag is fixed. It’s time to focus – stop following and become assertive.

I walked over to the train’s “gate guard” – an older woman, with a big smile and a blue square hat. I pointed to the map. She told us where we were. Yep, I was right. We’re at the wrong place. Maria did not believe her. Maria raised her voice and started asking her questions. Gate lady looked confused. I thought to myself – calm down Maria… This is NOT a big deal. We will figure it out. We’re late and lost, not going to prison.

I said to Maria, “What this means, is we have to buy new tickets. Go back down the escalator, take the metro train to the next stop and transfer there. Tickets are 26 rubles, or less than a $1. I will pay for it…You get in line. I watch our stuff…” This set Maria off. “We are NOT buying new tickets. We should not have to buy new tickets..this is not our fault.” I repeated that I’m buying the tickets. Let’s keep moving. I stood off to the side, near our gate guard lady, and felt confident that Maria was going to have a melt-down buying not one, but two tickets. She angers easily and does not communicate well.

Well, the “wrong” station for us was the “right” station for ALL of Russia. Hundreds and hundreds of Russians were clamoring for tickets and entrance onto the escalator. I stood. And watched people of all ages, all backgrounds, all classes and all walks of life pass by. I asked God for help. For patience To protect us from thieves. And, to lead us to our final destination. I was calm. I watched. Then, I spotted the thieves. Once you stop, look around and you will see them before they see you.

Two men on the prowl. First, they tried to jump the gate. But, our fearless gate guard lady screamed at them. Busted. They crawled into line. I watch them scan the crowd. It took a matter of seconds. Their eyes landed on my bags. Then, on me. I looked right at them. My eyes were not deviating. “Don’t fuck with me…I see you …I’m ready for you…” Brown, hard eyes on mine. Neither one of us moved. They whispered. I did not move. I was ready for them. Bring it on.

Meanwhile, I see Maria at the corner of my eye holding up the line. She’s waving her hands. An older Russian male steps in the help. Again, I say “thank you God.” I just keep staring at the thieves, praying the line would go slow and by the time we were on the metro, they would be just at the ticket window.

Maria came back with a story about the tickets. We walked to gate guard lady let us through the gate for the disable. That we were.. She smiled. My angel. There’s only one escalator. About 50 to 75 people are vying for the opening. I’m have two roller bags, a back pack and can food. I was pretending that my bag was a child, deserving space on the escalator. I kept my head up. Pulled the Russian thing – looked angry and resolute. Maria is off – she’s dusted me again. I wanted to scream inside. We get to the metro platform. She rolls her eyes when she sees me. Can’t loose me, baby..

We squeeze our way onto a crammed car. This train car was an old Moscow, 1940’s train car. Old, slow and loud. Everyone was staring at us. Fine with me because they would be able to witness if I were to get jumped or robbed. Though, I don’t have the confidence they would do anything about it. We fall out onto the next stop. Maria is off and running. I asked her to stop. I asked for us to regroup and look at a map. We got into trouble next time by just walking. I saw some teenager boys ogling at us. I walked over – smiled and pointed to the map. The taller of the bunch, showed me where to go. I walked off, blew him a kiss. They all giggled. Ok. Flirt worked. Now, let’s get on with it.

We walk for half a mile underground to the next metro tunnel. Maria was 200 feet in front of me – trying to dust me again. Amazing. We hit stairs. It’s the mob mentality. Someone pushes me. I loose my balance. I see myself falling down stone stairs – An angel in the form of an older man reaches out for me, grabs my bags and helps me down the stairs – slowly. I thanked him. He smiled and rushed off. Maria is no where to be found. I go to the the platform and wait for the next train. I see Maria. I walk over and smile. There’s no need to say anything. Why. She looks stressed. Flexibility and calmness is not her DNA. Strange for a girl who loves to travel.

We get on the train. Not as many people. I breath. Finally relax. Next question is – will the group be waiting for us? Where is the large train station for China? I had 3 minutes to let that bother me. Meanwhile, I need to get rid of the frightening “what if” thoughts of falling down the stairs. And, going to a calm place of gratitude that God protected me. I mean – for real. I was a split second from busting a knee or my head. I needed to purge evil thoughts about Maria. I needed to forgive her selfishness and be grateful that she stayed behind. The doors flew open. Maria was gone. I got off the train. Regrouped. Found a woman with a large roller bag. She has be to going to the large train station. I walked over, asked if she spoke English and if she was going to the train station. She said, “Yes. I take you.” Once again, thank you God.

I see Maria’s red bag climbing the stairs. I now have a “new” friend. I look up at the top of the stars and spy Kiki from Norway and David from Belgium. They’re waiting for us. YEA! What a relief. In my heart, I knew that all would be fine. It was just another adventure. I believe Maria did not think so.

I gave Kiki and David our 13 second sound bite of our “wrong stop, bought a new ticket, crowded..” metro experience. They said that Pat – our 76 year old English woman – was trampled on at one of the metro stops. If it weren’t for Canadian Dave, then she could have been real hurt. Shit. Our little situation was just that – little bit of nothing. Pat, on the other hand, that was real scary. Frightening. How’s Pat? “She’s shaken up. A man walked in – pushing. She fell to her knees. People were pushing. They walked over Pat. Dave reached down and got her before anything worse could have happened.” Shit. Shit. Shit.

Ok. Many things run through my mind. First, Gap Adventures should have arranged a bus to pick us up at the hotel to take us to the train terminal. It would have cost us $4 per person. We have 16 people traveling and taking this size group through one of the busiest subway system in the world at rush hour, says “disaster.” Pat falling or me getting lost is bound to happen. As a business, you want to protect your assets – your travelers – and doing this means paying a few extra dollars for a mini-bus. Further, Mash- our fearless leader – should have made sure the entire group was together at all times. And, he should have been walking with Pat the entire time. Gap Adventures credibility was shot on this one. Truly unacceptable.

The air changed once we boarded to train to Siberia. We were all giddy. Trying to board the train, I had issues with balance and bags. I was holding up the line. So, this tall Russian young man, picked up my bags, actually SMILED and walked me to my compartment. Damsel in Distress! Very thankful. He understands English but can not speak a word. He looks like he can murder someone on the outside, but seems kind on the inside. It’s the Russian look…

There’s four of us to a compartment. Emily and Hannah from Sweden. Maria from Canada. Me. My hope was the beds were long enough. The overnight from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the bed was short and as people walked by, they knocked my feet and kept me awake. Mosh said it’s a newer train built in China. We have air condition – windows don’t open – and enough space for our bags. It’s fun.

We unpack. And, I go looking for the vodka. The cool crowd was a few compartments down. David – the Belgium – had the vodka out and was passing around shots. I joined in. We fit eight people in there. John and Franklin from Sweden. Kiki from Norway. David from Belgium. Lauren from New Jersey. Hannah from Sweden. Emily from Sweden. Anastasia from South Africa living in London. Collin from London. And, me. Some stood, but most of us squeezed in. We drank shots. Talked. They talked a lot about the differences between Norway and Sweden. I did not know that Norway was one of the most expensive countries in the world, next to Japan. No one eats out. They go to Sweden to shop and buy booze. Swedes go to Germany to buy booze. Germans go to Czech to buy booze. Czech goes to Ukraine. Love that… Also, I did not know that Absolute Vodka is a Swedish brand. Hmmm.. These were the type of intellectually stimulating conversations we were having.

We made bets on who will stick the most – the fastest. We have four days and four nights without a shower. We are bartering shots of vodka for baby wipes. We narrowed it down and believe John from Sweden will stink first since he was wearing his last clean shirt. Must agree. The New Jersey girl started talking about US health care. She doesn’t know shit. I had to keep my silence – well, a little. Can’t help it. So, Franklin from Sweden and I had an offline conversation. He said that he is a conservative Swed in that he thinks they are taxed to high. He used to work for an insurance company in Sweden. He says their system is broken too – it might be free – but you’re not talking about quality care.

I told him, that it is a complicated. I was talking with a gentleman from New Zea land who says that “we deserve health care from our government.” The word “deserve” is what I struggle with. That is not an American word. We work. We pay taxes. We work. We have freedom of choice. We don’t do nothing and deserve a lot. Franklin agreed – he says people milk their system too. They are having issues with immigration. Iranians and others are coming over for surgeries. The government is debating, “do we charge them?” My expression looked confused. “I mean, you would consider NOT charging foreigners who made the individual decision to pay for a flight to Sweden for a surgery…” After a couple more shots of vodka, we solved all the health care problems…right.

We stayed up until 1 AM or so. We had a 10 minute stop in Vladimir Pass, once a Russian capital. It’s foggy. Ominous. I envisioned the KGB appearing through the industrial complex to “seize us.” Snapped a few photos, crawled into my mini-bed made for tall, skinny Russians. And, slept well. The vodka must have helped.

At 9:15 AM our cabin of four woke, quickly dressed to jump off at our first “lay over” station. We had 15 minutes to stretch our legs. It’s now 1:23 pm and we’re slowing down to stop at Balezio, Russia. No clue where or what it is. It’s pretty ugly from the window. Old trail yard. Old cement, blown out buildings. Blue sky. It’s around 45 degrees. We’ve stopped. Let’s go and see what Balezio has to offer…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Milling around Moscow

22 Sep

Moscow is a big city. I liked it. Don’t want to move there. But, I the gray grows on you. It’s progressive, fast and commercial. I’m amazed it’s now one of the most expensive cities in the world. They’ve been open for business – officially – for a little under 20 years.

Advertisements line the buildings. High priced shops. People walking fast. Clicking of high heels. Someone said that 15 or 20 million people live in Moscow. And over 1 million ride the metro everyday… I believe it. It feels congested. Feels big.

We technically had two full days in Moscow. We woke early and headed out – to “do” the city. More importantly, do the Kremlin, see Lenin’s dead body and dance in Red Square. The overnight train from St. Petersburg arrived into Moscow at 6 am. We checked into our hotel around 7 am and headed out looking for food around 8 am. Mash, our clueless leader from Mongolia took us to an overpriced coffee shop that serves “pancakes” (aka fried bread) to get our day started right. None of us had showered in days. Super grime was setting it. Yes, the smelly, bloated and caffeinated were taking on Moscow in style. Buyer beware.

We took the amazing Moscow metro to Red Square. On average, over 1 million folks ride the Moscow metro. Impressive. More impressive was its architecture, cleanliness and assurance that the weak or disabled can ever step foot in the place adorned with marble stairs extending to the heavens.

We get to Red Square. It’s misty. Rainy. Wet.  Yes, the sun comes out later… Thank God!  I believe we’re there on the day everything is closed. A line had formed at Lenin’s tomb. Is he really in there? I mean, embalmed and all? I had no desire to see a dead Lenin. Let alone, pay money for the cause. I’m glad everyone in our group felt the same.

Red Square is impressive. We strolled. Took pictures. Acted like we knew Soviet history. Ran from the rain. And, talked about our next meal. It’s always about food and $$ with the backpacking set. Our little Mash said he was going to get us a tour guide for the Kremlin. He was not fluent in Russian, nor knew much about history. So, we needed to pay extra for the revisionist history by a a true, well-paid Russian tour good. He gold us to wait. We did… We did wait… An hour later, Mash came back smiling but with no guid. We’re annoyed. Another thing about the traveling back packing set, don’t screw with our time and $$. We could be spending our time on a bench, getting lost or talking about what happened 12 minutes ago.

All of us are slightly annoyed. Mash asked if we’re willing to pay $5 a person for a Kremlin, certified guide. There’s a hitch. This Kremlin guide only spoke Russian – and I can bet he does not have laugh lines either. What Mash is telling us is that we would to pay extra $$ for an English translator. Let’s step back for one moment…..Let me remind you that the man responsible for taking 15 people across one of more inaccessible countries – and I will add hostile to foreigners – does not speak Russian and therefore, can’t translate to English. I smell danger… More on that later.

Anyway, the hitch was we need to pay more $$. Well, you have to remember the young bucks of the backpack set travels on a tight, tight budget. Spending more than $1 on water is extortion. We asked Mash was this tour $$ worth it. He said, “No, not really…No, I don’t think so…” WHAT! We’ve been sitting here an hour – waiting on you – and you tell us that we really don’t need a guide…

Peeved at Mash. We all bolted. Bought tickets. Went through metal detectors. Got inside the Kremlin. Not overly impressive. The Kremlin architecture mixes old Tsarist buildings with “screw you” Soviet architecture. The area is closed during most of the week, so we’re lucky to be here on Sunday. We sauntered around. Maria bought a touring tape in English to help us sort out “what’s what and why.” We should have known, the voice on the tape only talked about inane things like the types of plates, saucers and bells used by previous Czars. Who cares. It’s misting even more. e’re all tired. Dirty. And, the feeling of hating Moscow is in the air.

One part of the group heads back to hotel to nap and shower. Hell no. Not our group…. Emily, Hannah, Maria and I vow NOT to go back to our hotel and stay in Moscow until 7:30 pm – it was the group dinner time. Our thought was if we go back to shower, then we may not want to leave the hotel.

After the Kremlin, we walked over to the mall on Red Square. It reminded me of the Bellagio in Vegas. Elaborate. Amazing. Large. Expensive. I’m sure Stalin murdered million here in it’s hey day. I mean, Lenin’s body is a stone’s throw away from Cartier…what do you expect.

The dirty, smelly travelers were in search of food. We found a cafe. Ordered. Food did not come for at least an hour. Russia may be trying their hand at Russian corrupt capitalism, but they’re lacking in service. No service. They seem displeased when they see customers – highly annoyed actually. That communism – you can’t fire me – attitude is pervasive.

I pulled the American card and returned my food because the waiter pissed me off. He promised me no mayonnaise. They sprayed the sandwich with mayo. I took another 30 mins for the sandwich. I’m sure they took turns pissing on it out back.

After a bad lunch, we decided to do the walking tour in Lonely Planet. It’s a 10 km walk through Moscow – to Gorky Park and through old neighborhoods. The walk was invigorating. We crossed over one bridge to an expensive area of town. We could tell by the number of Land Rovers, BMWs, etc…

The rich were in line vying for flats on the river. I guess these were kids of the mafia or Russian oil money. Who knows. But, highly entertaining. I took pictures. Mind you – we have not showered in 2 days and walking through upscale, billionaire areas. I’m surprised the fashion police did not pick us up.

We happen upon Gorky Park. I thought it was just a park. Made for a great movie… I had NO idea it was an amusement park. BLAST! Rides. Roller coasters.

Women where out in their three inch platforms with their baby strollers. Other women, were looking for husbands. Other men, were drinking vodka.

All at your typical Moscow amusement park. We had a blast walking around, riding rides and taking in the scene. It was a scene…

By this time, it’s time to meet the group. They are clean. We’re dirty.

We go BACK to the mall for dinner. I’m annoyed. We’re in Moscow and we’re having dinner at the mall. Really? It’s buffet style. Even worse. I voiced my opinion and asked if there was something more Russian around? Mash shrugged his shoulders and led us to the mall. Fine. I just wanted to get home, shower and go to bed anyway. Chicken. Rice. Beans. That works. No worries, the ugly American rears its head much later.

After dinner, we jumped on the magnificent metro and headed back to our hotel. It was a long day. Yes, Moscow is manageable. But, my heart is in St. Petersburg. Nicoli was right – Moscow is built on messy money. St. Petersburg is built on Russian class…

Off the Grid – Trans Siberian & Mongolian GER

20 Sep

For my 1.2 fans…  I’ve been off the internet grid for 5 days, traversing Russia and Siberia via rail.  I wrote everyday – so I hope to have it posted this week. I’m sure you’ve been wondering “where in the world is Tallgirl” and did she make it out of Russia – land of no smiles???

In Mongolia now.  Leaving tonight for a GER stay — tent for harsh living in the middle of no where. Loving Ulaan Baatar.

A quick Mongolian hotel update. Asleep at 12:30pm. Woke at 1 am to water spewing from the ceiling and man shimmering through crawl space in my bathroom.  Loud cries of women faking organisms permeated the 4th floor. Hotel clerk screaming. I just watched.  My take? Man was spying on sex girls, excitedly kicked a pipe & was busted.  As I said, it’s all part of preparing for tonight’s stay in a Ger – tent suited for harsh lifestyles.

Party on rock stars… Let’s hope the GER has accessible toilets…Bringing the Imodium for this one.

Overnight Train…to Moscow

20 Sep

On the train to Moscow from St. Petersburg.

It’s an overnight train. Cramped.

No doors.

Six people per compartment area.

Two Russian women slept last night in the corridor area. I just woke. No coffee. My brain feels fuzzy. I do not want to talk, so I powered up my lap top. Going to try and write.

We are about 30 mins outside of Moscow. The air in the train is thick. Smells like humans. Smells like socks. It’s cold outside. We try and pry open the window. We no longer care about the cold. We need circulation. I give it 4 mins, and we will be freezing.

The St. Petersburg to Moscow train ride. Brilliant. Loved it. No, I did not sleep at all – but that was not the purpose. I woke every 20 minutes or hour – it was all the same thing to me. The beds are stacked to six a compartment. But, let me describe compartment. No doors. Four bunks on one side of the train and two on other. The hall way or walk way or the place where people bang your feet in the middle night divides the bunks. The train people give you 2 sheets and pillow. I’m impressed for this is third class. Scored a pillow.

I can tell the Russian women want to talk again…start being chatty but I’m keeping my head down. I talked last night. There’s a young, friendly Russian woman who shared space with us last night. She slept in the hallway bunk. Her name is Marget. Lives in Moscow. She is in her third year at University, studying marketing. She has taken, from what I can gather, two years of English at university. She wanted to practice her English. But, just as importantly, she is very interested in us – us foreigners. I mean sleeping only two feet away from her is a South African, a Brit, Canadian living in Saudi and a chick from Florida. Sounds fascinating. Well, hell, it is. I’m fascinated by it.

Last night, Margret and I talked for a few hours. She tried very, very hard to talk about her life in Moscow. But, she was at lost for words. She talked about her friend’s wedding in St. Petersburg. She the special friend for she wore a sash. Her dress was pink and white. The brides dress was gray. I can only assume she wanted to say “off white” because I can’t imagine a brides dress being gray. There was 30 people at the ceremony and afterward, they drove all around St. Petersburg taking pictures at historical sites. This is traditional – for the bride and groom to go to parks, museums, historical areas to take pictures.

It’s hysterical. Yesterday in St. Petersburg, we saw no more than 12 wedding couples posing at random places. Regardless, the Russians LOVE taking pictures. Especially the women. The pose like mail order brides or for some lower grade Maximum mag. I went to Swan Lake ballet and before it began, a group of young Russian women were striking sexy poses in front of the orchestra, balconies, aisle, stage… I wanted to take a picture of them taking pictures. Generally speaking, American woman loath having their picture taken in front of strangers…

Back to Russian Margret and the train… She talked about the wedding party – drinking wine, dancing, eating a bread cake and ending it with drinking vodka. Money is given as a gift. I think it goes tot he “baby” fund. I truly did not understand. She said something about mother of the bride is not invited to the ceremony, only the party. I hope that is not right…

OK… Some dude with dreads just walked up to me and said in broken English. “You charge my phone with your computer. It needs work.” I just stared at him and grunted. I’ve channeled “bad ass” Russian or “bad attitude” back packer girl. I just stared at him. He hands me his phone and walks off. I’m sorry, but who are you? I found out later he was in St. Petersburg for a techno-break dancing competition.

OK. People are moving. Air is thickening. People are in line for the restroom. My roomie, Maria, bought sparkling water. I hate water with bubbles. Who drinks this stuff, let alone early in the morning. I’m surprised it does not smell around here.

Getting on the bus last night was a mini event for our group of 16. They arrived loaded with backpacks on their back. Leaning over. Looking haggard. Some, even sporting backs on their chest. I’ve opted for a roller backpack. Seriously, trying to stay away from the back thing as long as possible. Pat and I – who is 75 – have the two roll aways. Majority of people are a few years out of college or just shy of 28 – before or after. They are the Young Bucks. That’s cool.

The day before, Emily and Hannaha from Sweden and Maria from Canada walked St. Petersburg from 10 am to 8 pm – so my legs had those tired cramps as did my feet. The Hermitage art gallery was first on our list. It was the former Winter Palace of Peter the Great and, I believe, Catherine the Great did some architectural upgrades to the place. Catherine needed it bigger and better. The art was amazing but the rooms were magnificent. I just imagined living here in the 1700’s – tooling around a palace the size of – well two or five blocks.

The four of us are good museum-ers because we continued to move. We stopped at the bits where other tour guides stopped and pretended like we are learning something. We stopped at a Peacock golden statute made into a clock. The English translation said the clock worked. It said the Peacock did something special at the top of the hour. We waited. People gathered. Russians peered over my shoulder. I was standing up front. Some woman tapped me on the shoulder to move. I turned side ways. Not moving sister. And, the Peacock clock is not moving either – nothing happened.

After the Hermitage, we trotted over to a church, the St. Isaacs. We screwed up because we bought tickets to the museum instead of to the colonnade. The colonnade takes you to the top of the church for an amazing view of St. Petersburg. We tried to return our tickets for we just wrapped up the Hermitage – THE museum of all times. The bitter ticket lady, said “no return.” We paid an extra $3 to climb to the top of St. Isaac’s. I will post some of the photos. It gives you a very good, bird-eye view of the city. We have the museum tickets, so we went inside. It was a beautiful Orthodox church. I believe someone important was murdered here. Impressive. No chairs. The Russian Orthodox did not believe in chairs. They believed in suffering. Some services lasted 5 to 8 hours. Talk about back problems.

From St Isaacs, we trotted over to another church. We called it the onion church. The architecture is Russian in that when I think of Russian buildings, I think of this. As we walked around the church, we saw four to five brides and wedding parties taking pouty pictures. We joined in on the fun. I took pictures to.

From there, we walked over to Peter and Paul’s fortress on the river. St. Petersburg is built on canals – or swamp land. It’s am amazing fortress. We took pictures and froze. By this point, we are hungry. I mean starving. My new Russian friend, Nicoli, told me about the fast food Russian restaurant – serves pancakes. He said the food is good. Inexpensive. And, all I have to remember is the name is in red and starts with the letter “T.” We found one! They even have an English menu. I ordered pancake with cheese, pork, cream and green leaves. It was heavenly. We inhaled.

After lunch/snack, we sauntered back through the city. Meaning, we walked for another 4 miles or so. We met the group and then loaded ourselves up on the train… This blog just came full circle.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Download in St. Petersburg, Russia

20 Sep

My second day in St. Petersburg, Russia. I woke early to another typical breakfast. Choice of cheap yogurts, fake coco-puffs, corn flakes, salami, crusty breads, old cheeses, instant coffee and heavy cream. After filling up, I head down the street in search of the International Hostel. There, I’m to meet a Russian tour guide to take me on a walk through St. Petersburg. A Canadian named Kat joins me and together with Nicoli we set off to see the city. Nicoli asks if there is anything in particular we wanted to see or do. Kat wanted to see graffiti. Bizarre. I told him, I wanted his brain. That’s it.

Nicoli is born and raised in St. Petersburg. He’s around 37 and very well traveled. He’s driven across the US and through South America. So, when he gives the US a hard time – well, he can. He’s probably seen more of it than many US citizens.

We go in search of graffiti. The purpose of the tour is to see things that aren’t truly historical. Meaning, we stay out of museums and churches – that is the trendy churches. We did happen upon a church built by Peter the Great – only four churches stayed standing under Stalin – and this was was adorned on the outside by Turkish cannons and guns. Nice. It was a gift.

As we walked, I asked him about Russia’s history. We started with the civil war and revolution. They used these words interchangeable. He began with WWI and said that Russia really did not want to get involved in the Ottoman break up and Balkan mess. The Germans “made them” for the Hungarian – Austrian empire was going to divide up the Balkans and the Germans wanted a large share, so the Russians had to get their share too. WWI, technically never ended, which gave way to WWII. Russia did not want to go to war with Hitler because they had their own civil of war of sorts going on at home. Stalin was purging Russia…

Back to WWI. This was the time when the Tsars of Russia were loosing control over Russia. They were internally imploding and the working class were demanding rights. Lenin was in Germany waiting for the perfect time to come in under the umbrella of the party of the working class – Soviets – to brand his government idealism. Germany saw Lenin as their puppet and saw him as weak and controllable. Little did they know. The story goes is that Lenin and his men knocked on the Tsar’s door in St. Petersburg, they left, no bloodshed. Nicoli said that Lenin and his crew rewrote history and said that there was a revolution because people needed a huge revolutionary event to rally behind. Nicoli went on to say that all of Russian and Soviet history has been rewritten and it is only in the past years that they are seeing the horrors and lies of their past. When you walk down the street, a seething sense of injustice is written on their faces. These people don’t smile. I mean – never. Not even the couples that are “in love” and holding hands. No expressions. Stone.

At one point, we were walking down this street. Nicoli said, this was a street devoted to Lenin and his history. Stalin wanted to erase all of Lenin and the past, so he torched the street. Burnt all the relics, papers, guns – anything – attributed to Lenin. He said, “today, we have a museum – over there – it’s a joke. It’s all made up. There’s nothing of substance in there. We know that. The tourists, don’t. I advise you to stay away. Waste of money.”

As we walked through the blighted and wealthy areas of St. Petersburg, he talked of days under Stalin, Gorby, Yeltsin and Putin. He said that Stalin killed more than 50 million Russians. He did not use the world kill. He said purge. He would purged even his own men. He would hire them – keep them around for a year or so – then kill them and their families. He wanted no trace of their existence or linkage to him.

The civil war was against the White Army and Soviets – Red Army was really Stalin against against anyone who did not support him. Talk about bully complex. If you were at a bar and told a Stalin joke you could be considered an enemy and killed. Your family killed too. Fear was everywhere. Even in the middle of no-where-ville, Siberia. That still confuses me…

Another point. We were walking through an apartment complex and he was pointing out a WWII bunker. He said, these bunkers in St. Petersburg saved an estimated 20,000 lives. The famine killed over 2 million during the same time period. Hmmmmmmmmm…

Oh, there was so much. I loved Nicoli’s brain. I think Kat was frightened by my questions. We talked about the end of the Cold War. He said the break up of communism had to do with money. The US and West paid Russia a lot of money to stop making nuclear warheads. A lot. Soviets’ economy was not working. They did not want to loose face. They needed money. They could no longer support its communist defacto states like East Germany, Poland, Czech, Cuba, etc. There was a lot back dead agreements and, in the end, we paid off the government to stop the cold war. This is according to Nicoli. Who knows. It all seems plausible. Because during the 80s, those economies were going into the shiter. East Germans, Poles, Russians were all fleeing because of economic and social uncertainty. More Russians were escaping. Their lives were bleak. They no longer trusted their government. It was time – They’ve been watching the US for years. Gorby came and it talked about another way to run the government. He allowed for smaller Providences to hold elections. He allowed for Estonia, Latvia and other Providences to become independent. Soviet Union was thawing…

Oh, I could go on and on and on and on… A few funny things was capitalism was branded by Yeltsin. And, Yeltsin represented vodka and hugs. So, they thought that was capitalism – a lot of drinking and hugging. Funny.

The day was amazing. I learned a lot. It gave me a keener look at Russia. And, I will say that these people need to laugh. Smile. It’s a nation that needs some Protaz… or uppers… or a Starbucks on every corner. Something. They need to smile… I want them to smile.

First Day in St. Petersburg, Russia

13 Sep

St. Petersburg, Russia

I touched down in St. Petersburg. My word. Am I really in Russia? The Russia – where violence, hunger, romance and clandestine operations are the norm? This place introduced their version to sharing, openness and capitalism less than twenty-five years ago. That’s it. That’s nothing. You just can chuck a history of reminiscent government control and expect people to trust each other – let alone their government – and walk with smiles on their faces. It’s going to take decades, if not centuries.

I was traveling in the Middle East with a friend from East Germany. Their “wall” per se was physically knocked down in late eighties. She said that a private research group recently polled both East and West Germans about life now – in comparison to the Berlin Wall days. The majority of both East and West Germans said they wanted the wall back. Life – perceived life – was better then than now. Yes, business news just reported that Berlin – German economy – had one of this best growth quarters ever. My friend said that under communism, there was 100% full employment and health care. Though, trying to get proper health care of any sort could take weeks and months – but not matter – it was free. What’s free when the government is your employer, takes your $ and repackages as “Free Services.”

Today, West Germans are paying a fee or tax to support the East Germans. When the wall came down millions of East Germans were added into the social and economic fabric of Germany. How do you absorb them? Educate them? Provide a a stronger foundation? West is pissed at East. East is pissed at West. She says the same thing – it’s going to take decades and decades for Germans to be unified and the government to put into place an operating system that is fair, equitable and where people can contribute. That was one thing interesting about Poland. Polish have zero concept of volunteerism. Zero. They thought it was highly strange that we would travel around the world to help them build houses – volunteer. Poland is the same as East Germany in terms of history. They don’t have a concept of volunteerism for their government either did it or it never got done. The later was the norm.

Back to Russia.

Airport security was uneventful. That’s right. No friggin’ big deal. I expected to be detained and questioned about my itinerary and forced to live here forever and ever and ever. Nope. We landed. TGIF Fridays welcomed me at the gate.

look at the lungs

Look at the Lungs

People were smoking. They are smoking now. They will be smoking later. I need to show them the marketing propaganda in Jordan and Israel. It may make them stop. Marlboro is forced to put a picture of some sick lungs on their package. Nothing but a set of black lungs to remind you that death is knocking with each puff.

Anyway, I walked down the airport corridor and some young kid was passed out and friends were trying to revive him. Too much Vodka? People were trotting towards their gate. Others were smoking. Kids were screaming. All in all, a normal airport. I grabbed my bag – which DID arrive without any security trouble – and headed to passport stamp central. Another blond with steely eyes was hidden behind a wooden box with a glass window. She did not say a word. I handed her my passport. A young kid was in the box with her – training possibly – and they giggled over something. Probably my pictures. Ugly with a capital U. She stamped the paper and off I went.

I walked out “into the light” and Michael greeted me. I had the trans-Siberian travel group have a driver meet me at the airport for $20. Was not going to try and figure out the Russian subway system on this day. Michael and I walked outside. He left me the curb. The woman who sat the airplane aisle with her mini-football lap dog, was standing next to me. She’s Russian. Her dog is too. The air was clean. It was warm – like 65 degrees – and St. Petersburg welcomed me with a smile. I’m here. The RUSSIA.

Micheal and I drove off in this Toyota mini-SUV. The area around the airport is your typical commercial area. Large buildings. Soviet looking – gray and and grayer. It took around 45 mins to get to the historical, downtown area. Michael chatted about St. Petersburg. He’s lived there all his life. He is not in the tourism business. He’s just picking me up for a friend. His friend is busy. Michael works for a Greek bank in “relationship management.” He just passed all of is CPA, series 7 and financial analyst tests in English. There is 6 million living in St. Petersburg and only 5,000 have passed all of these tests in English. I told him, “I better not read about you going to prison one day because you are too rich for Russia.” He laughed. I believed him about the numbers. I later found out the Russians still track you. Most have a great computer data storage system.

He said that the Greek banks are more solid, healthy than the Russian banks. I responded, “Surprised. Because I would assume since the Greek financial crisis, the banks would be in deep trouble like the government.” He said, “Yes, as an outsider you would think that. But, the Greek banks did not get into trouble. The government is the one in trouble. The Greeks did not feel like paying taxes and the government did not feel like collecting taxes. Then, they had no money. Greek people got mad…” Huh…

He went on to say, “Russia banks. You walk in and never know if the bank will be there. You do not if you will still have a job. Russia bank here for a few years or months, then disappears. Greek banks are all over Europe. They follow European labor laws and pay on time and give you a vacation. Russia banks, no. I’m happy to be working for a Greek bank.”

OK. That conversation has may layers to peel back. I tried. Talks to trust in their government. In business. I later had a long conversation – like 5 hours – with a Russian man. He said that their government is in the business of “changing.” He said, “like Obama, change, no? I mean where did this Obama come from? We are the same about Russian government. No one knows background. They come to talk about better life. Better change. Better opportunities.” He went on “But, the government – politicians – want to keep the people always guessing. Always surprised. Always changing. No one becomes too rich, too powerful, too complacent. Businesses don’t know, so they leave, pay cash or barter. No one can plan – anything. We get ready for the next change.”

We pull up to our hotel. It is a brown building. No sign. No nothing. I ask, “are you sure?” Michael says, “Yes. Go press that button on the wall. They let you in.” Damn. Where am I? It looks like a deteriorated Red Light District of Russia. I ring the bell. Greeted by two young girls who speak little English. They take my passport. Hand me a key and show me to the room. We walk down the long sidewalk. Press a code and then insert a card into a door. Major security. Where am I?

No elevator. We take the stairs of 1940, three flights. I’m now sweating. She slides the card and inserts another code into another door. Down along hallway with lightening. Good lightening. The hallway looks clean. We open my door and two beds and a shower waits me. It’s nice. I even have a mini-couch. I like it. It will work. I have NO idea where I am. But, my rooms seems safe. I flush the toilet and smile. They even have a real blow dryer. Honey, it’s time to party.

I drop the bags. Its around 4:00 pm. I have NO idea where I am – meaning – know little about St. Petersburg. I’ve been reading about my Tsars, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, WWI, Lenin Revolution, Civil War, Stalin crimes, WWII – but still have no idea where I am. I found my way back tot he front desk. The girls handed me a map. Circled our street and drew a line to the historical center. And, I grab my mini-back pack and start walking. I will find whatever I want to find and tomorrow I’ll do the “real deal” and tour like an American. Today, I’m touring like a clueless nomad. Where will the day and night take me.

I wander into grocery stories — they are some of my favorite places because it tells you about the country. Plus, I wonder if I can locate a fresca, diet 7-up or diet sprite. If they have anything diet, it tells me a little something about the people. No diet nothing. A lot of chocolate. Pasta. Tea. Fish. Bread. Rotten fruit. Cheese. And, Vodka. The mini-grocery stores have their food behind glass. You have to point and the lady screams and hands you food.

I find my way down Nesky street. That’s what I’m calling it. Everything is in Russian. Duh. I noticed a few words from my sorority days – gamma, pie, beta, alpha – but can’t tell you anything. I figured out the restaurant is the letter P with the Greek symbol, Pie. Coffee shops are KA(Insert Greek sign)E. And, signs in pink usually tells toilet paper. Got this place covered.

Nesky street is the “it” street of St. Petersburg. All the stores you want – H&M, ZARA, ECCO, MANGO, BENETTON and more and more expensive stores. They are littered in with fur shops and second hand electronics. I walk.

There are so many people on the street. The women are beautiful. No joke. They all wear the “I hate you. Fuck you. Die” expressions. I think Angelina Joelie must have sisters here – all skinny, pouty lips, ice eyes and looks like they need to be fed. Did I say they are skinny? I mean, super skinny regardless of age. They are trying their hand at the fashion thing. Some, you can tell, have $ and their clothes tell you this. How? Well, their heals have rubber on them, not nails. That is one noise you hear over and over again – Nails scratching the sidewalks. Girls out there know what I’m talking about. Click. Click. Click. Their shoes are a minimum of three inches and they look like they have been around the block many, many miles. Their clothes are every shade of black. No autumn, spring or summer colors here. They like boots. Heels. Big purses. And, tight clothes. But, not in a vulgar, slutty way. In a sexy, I want a husband with $$ way. Am I making sense?

They only smile if they are talking to a friend. But, no one smiles. No one. It’s seriously, “eat shit and die” look. My new BFFer, Nicoli, said that “Russian people don’t smile. But, they are laughing inside. American people smile. But, they are sad said inside. American people take pills to smile. Russians can’t afford the happy, prescription pills, no?” So, to make me feel better, I imagined all of them drug-free and laughing inside. Hey, maybe this is what an anti-prozac society looks like…

I made my way down to the Hermitage museum – Peter the Great’s Winter Palace. When Catherine the Great came on to the scene, she added some architectural enhancements. I walked upon this green monstrosities and thought, “OK, this is big. This is something. Looks like I’ll be back here tomorrow.” I then trotted over a bridge and ran into the onion church. That’s what Russians call it – onions. The Germans or Stalin did not destroy it during war’s heydays. It’s amazing. Again, no clue what I was looking at – but knew it was a bid deal. I find all of this stuff out the next day.

Peter the Great’s goal in the 1740s+ was to move Russia out of backwardness to forwardness – as he saw it. He built a city based on Amsterdam and with a European, intellectual curiosity. St. Petersburg – before Peter – was a big mound of swamp land. Nothing. Given I from Florida, it reminds me of Mr. Walt Disney. I guess Walt was inspired by Peter and thought – if Peter can build St. Pete in swamp land, then he could build a theme park devoted to mice on the same golden sludge.

“It took over 100,000 men with their balls up to muck to build this city,” according to Nicoli. I like the visual. Canals bleed through the city. Back then, the Russians hated St. Petersburg. Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and forced the aristocrats to move to his city. They did. But, they believed the city was beneath them. I guess living with muck and mosquitoes will do that for you.

After walking for 4 hours or so, I headed back to my hotel. It’s night. Well, it’s 8:00 pm and it’s still light. But, my body clock is off and I’m tired. I find my way back to hotel. I buy water with greek letters. Did not have the right amount. The cashier did “not” have change. So, she kept my money. That is the norm around here. Rip you off. I did not care. She can keep the $.50 as a tip. I just wanted my water.

Came back. Showered with water pressure. Crawled into bed. Next day – I was signing up for the 6 hour walking tour with a “real live” Russian. I’m going to see this city. But, not only that, I’m going to talk politics, religion, sex and drugs – all the things that are damned. I can’t wait!

Yes, I’m in Russia. I’m tired. So, I can’t give it a two thumbs up or down. I can tell you that I’m clean. Safe. And, happy.

From Poland to Russia. That’s a domestic flight.

9 Sep

And, lift off! LOT – Polish Airlines – is in the air in route to Warsaw with final destination — land of Peter the Great – St. Petersburg, Russia.

Excitement. Apprehension. Wonderment. Those are the feelings right about now. I’m just relieved I made my flight because we’re off to a rocky start. I hate typing those words since my travel day has just begun. It’s 6:28 AM my time or 12:28 AM (EST).

My head hit the pillow around 1 AM and I woke around 3:30 AM. Taxi – Audi station wagon – wisked me to Krakow airport around 4:30 am. My taxi drivers is the same dude I bribed to drive me to DHL only weeks ago. It was nice to see his face. Safe hands… At least for the next 29 minutes or so.

Ok. So, my final destination is St. Petersburg, Russia so one would safely assume that I would be departing at Krakow’s international terminal. Makes sense. Right? I need to learn whenever I “assume,” I’ll wind up lost or screwed.

Taxi man drops me off. We wish each other “good life” and my feet briskly carry me to the international terminal It’s cool out. I have 2 t-shirts, jacket and scarf. Try to wear as much clothes as possible so they won’t charge me extra for baggage weight. Every ounce counts here.

It’s 5:05 am and the the place is DEAD. My flight is to take off in an hour. The only airline operating is Lufthansa – those folks are going to Munich. Hmmm… I don’t understand. I don’t even see a LOT kiosk or LOT gate. There’s no LOT.

I stand in the mini-airport and just look around. I inhale. OK. What am I missing here. I’m tired. Unlike Beirut, signs are in English. No LOT. There are a few stragglers hanging around – think homeless or old men up all night – and a few stragglers in line for Munich. I walk outside. Does LOT have their own terminal and in my haste of wishing Taxi man “good life” I walked in the wrong door?

Nope. No LOT terminal. I walk back in. This time my breathing starts to get heavier. I look at the time. My flight leaves in 50 mins. I spy some security dudes, lazily strolling around, heads down, in deep conversation. I walk behind them. The rollers on my bag echo off the walls.  They take no notice of the frantic hysteria on their tails…

“Oh, excuse me… English… do you speak English?”  They keep walking. I say it again, “only louder with a higher pitched tone.” They turn. “English?”

The taller, darker one says, “Yes.” I show him my flight itinerary.  He just stares and smiles at me. It dawns me he can’t read.  “Can you tell me where I check in for LOT? It’s going to Warsaw at 6 am. My final destination is Russia. Can you help me?”

He pointed to an office door with a LOT sign. I smiled. Good. Can’t imagine checking in at an office, but at least I know LOT exists. The sign said it does not open until 5:30 am. It’s 5:11 am. I’m clearly in the wrong place. I get in line at Lufthansa.  Airport people know each other. They know the system. Security – another story. Plus, they have to speak basic English.

I wait. Wait. And, wait.  People in front of me are going to the States and something is wrong with their VISA. Shit. It’s VISA again… I wait. Stare at the time. My eyes scan for LOT people. LOT badges. LOT anything. It’s 5:16 am. What happens if I miss my flight to Warsaw and then to St. Petersburg. I know what happens – but I’m still have time to fix this.

My hands start to swell. Mouth turning dry. These men line up behind me with 7 or 8 foot tools. Looks like they are carrying canoe paddles. Their loud. Polish. Speaking in constants. I can’t hear them. My eyes pour in the back of the family in front of me. Come on lady, le’ts move it. Do you have a VISA or not?

It’s now 5:20 am and the LOT door is still closed. The women moves. I smile. The Lufthansa kid smiles back. Thank you lord! I tell him my situation. Annoyance emerges. He said, “you are at the wrong terminal. Warsaw is domestic. It’s 500 meters.”

Flashback to High School crew days. Is 500 meters the entire race or the sprint? I asked, “can I walk?” He repeats, “it’s 500 meters.” Looks like I’m sprinting. The clock now says 5:26 am.

I inhale. Clasp by bags. And, haul ass through the vacant terminal. Out the door. Run into another security teen. I ask him, “Domestic?” And point. He nods. Smiles. Nods. Damn, he doesn’t speak English. He has that look.

Down the sidewalk. Keeping my head down, I start to pace my breathing.  I tell myself — no pain in shoulder or hand…there’s no pain… I notice the sidewalk is made out of the same bricks I used to pave the shed floor at Habitat.  I feel comforted by the bricks.

Stay focus. Around the corner, there’s a building. Is it? Nope. Cargo. I trot by. Next building is big. It has to be it. Nope. It’s security. The sidewalk is dark. No lights. No cars. I keep trotting. You have GOOOOT to be kidding me. Am I going to get friggin lost trying to find the domestic terminal in airport the size of Burger King. Prespiration. My stomach growls. Legs are tired. Heart moving to fast. Break it down to the obnoxious fast walk thing where the hips are bouncing back and forth. I’m willing my backpack rollers to turn faster and faster. I round the corner. There’s light. Stairs. And, the red lights “domestic.” Made it! Now, let’s hope the gate is not closed.

I see LOT. LOT exists. There are 2 people left in line to check in. I exhale. My throat is so dry that I begin to cough. Now dry heave. I’m dry heaving. Fab. The nuns look at me.  My eyes are watering.  I’m doing the controlled dry heave.  Where is my gum. I have no liquids for I’m about the go through security. Gum. Grab the gum. I pawn through my backpack, trying to control the urge to  barf. Clearly, I’m not in shape. Gum inserted in mouth and throat goes from sand paper to soft scrub. I step into line acting like everything is “cool.” Of course I didn’t just trot 500 meters to catch a domestic flight to Russia.  Who does such things….

I’m checked in. Gate guy wishes me a “good life.” Second time I heard it this AM, and it’s only 5:48 AM. The line for radiation is 20 feet. (Don’t know meters). I line up behind a nun. I look at the sign of “what not to carry on.”  They’ve listed kayaks,canoes and martial art weapons like brass knuckles,  nun-chucks and bayonets.  I sooo wanted to whip out my camera.  I mean a Kayak?  Did someone try to convince them that it would fit in the overhead space?   What is a nunchuck?  Of course, I read numb-nuts.  I could not stop laughing.  I mean out loud giggling.  I pictured the whole numb-nut and kayak scene.  Thank you God. My anxiety level is slowly resuming normalcy. Throat is secreting moisture on its own.

It’s 5:55 AM and my flight leaves in 5 mins. I’m next through the strip search of security. Two pilots and four flight attendants que in behind me. I make it through the pat down. It’s 5:57 am and I jump on the bus to take me to the LOT plane. I sit. It’s quite. One other late comer is on the bus. The bus does not move. Seriously. Am I on the wrong bus now?

It’s 5:59 am. I’m about to stand up, then the flight crew boards the bus. Please don’t tell me that’s our pilot. The bus lurches forward. We round the corner. I look out the window, searching for a LOT plane. We pass the security building, cargo building – the buildings I just trotted by moments ago. We head to the international terminal. Yep. You guessed it. Bus stops at international terminal only 60 or so feet from my launching pad only 30 minutes ago.   I knew from Poland to Russia was international.  Well, I got a quick jog on the way to the flight.   That’s all I can ask for.

I board the plane with 10 windows along with the flight crew. It’s not our pilots, just stewardess.  The ride along pilots butt in front of me and grab all the first class seats. I make my way to the back of the plane tuck my knees in. We lift off – the world is slowly waking up. I think about today – the people that will leave this world. The people that will come into this world. The people getting a promotion or the ones getting  terminated. The people who will go hungry another day and those who will embrace gluttony.  The people who want to be heard and those who are silenced.

Today is a beautiful day. Full of hopes. Full of fears. Full of life. I’m so blessed to be flying thousands of meters, feet and inches above watching God unfold this day to me. I’m gearing up for Peter the Great and Putin.

The cabin is quiet. The flight attendant hands me a 6:39 AM snack. Princess cookies! Love them. Today is going to be a good day.

I landed in Warsaw. We were welcome with another dose of radiation and a pat down.   I found a cafe that served hot sandwiches, across from my gate and started humming “Last Christmas” by George Michael.  I ordered a latte and a sandwich which I prayed was not drenched in mayo. I realized Warsaw muzak is playing an eight-track of GM for the next song is Careless Whispers. I smile.

As I sipped my coffee and stared, I tuned into the sophisticated ladies sitting next to me.  One woman is from Bulgaria woman looks like Olivia Bensen from Law & Order SVU. The other two are older – blonds – and are Lebanese. I believe they live in Beirut. A Bulgarian woman is asking them about Beirut. My ears perk up.

Bulgaria woman asks, “I haven’t been to Beirut. They wear regular western clothes, right?” They respond, “Why of course!” She goes on, “Well, I went to this party in Bulgaria. These Lebanese women were there. They had scarfs. But, then they were dancing on the tables. I was like, WOW!  WOW!  This was a Lebanese woman. When they moved fast the the scarfs came undone.”

Beirut lady, “The West side of Beirut is more progressive. You know in France they are doing a lot of questions about this. They are not letting people cover their face. And, the Muslims are upset.”   Bulgaria woman is silent. She is not going there – not giving her opinion. Conversation changes to weather.  I applaud her.

Bulgaria woman continues on…”They are educated in Lebanon, no? Women are educated. I met women in Kuwait.  They are not educated. They are covered but can’t read. In Lebanon, the woman are safe. They can work. It’s comfortable. They are safe. They have more freedoms than in other countries. Men don’t bother them.  They are safe.”

Bulgaria woman, “I did not like LA. I like San Diego. I like tan. It’s not good for the skin. But, in moderation. It’s good.”

Bulgaria woman, “Your husband is tall? That’s good. It’s nice to be tall. Tall is good.”

Beirut woman, “I was model. They come to my house to ask if I could model. I was tall. They come to my house to ask my father.”

Bulgaria woman, “ I was 16. This man comes to my house. I look Arabic you know.  He was Arabic.  Older.  I have curly hair, dark and the Arab uni-brow.  You know, the Arabic look…. He brings my father rice. He says he wants to marry me. My father got angry. Very angry. He angry with me. 16. Not married at 16. Nooooooooo…  I’m not married now. I’m 38. Yes, I look young. It’s because I’m not married, no?”

Bulgaria woman, “I have a cousin who is married to a rich Lebanese man. Very rich. Yes, she’s still married. Doctor of a very rich woman. My cousin, very beautiful woman. She has no choice. She has to be beautiful or husband gets mad.”

Bulgaria woman, “I want to have kids. But, it’s not so easy. When you’re older. But whatever the God Will. Whatever the God will. I need to find a prince… But, there are no prince. I look, but no prince. Maybe I don’t need a prince.  Maybe I just need a baby.  I’m a nurse.” Lebanese women agree.

Bulgaria woman, “I like different things. I communicate very easy with people. I like travel.”

I like traveling too. Listening. Asking questions. Curious…. So, curious…. Another George Michael song – You’ve Got to Have Faith. They’re about to call for my flight to St. Pete. Need to brush the tooth, apply lip gloss, touch the VISA and “load’em up.” We’re off. Next blog will about landing and getting to the hotel.  Wish me luck!

Visiting Visas – Russia, China, Vietnam

29 Aug

Whether Maslow meets my traveling physiological needs – breathing, food, water, clean bathrooms and constant body temperature  — or not is really of no bother to me.  It is when I’m challenged by a high-school drop out or thug managing border security is when I become unglued.

Because of this, you would think securing a Visa prior to leaving would be a priority.  Nope.  Clothes and accessories were my only priority.

You see, I had planned to be in London for 2 weeks.  All the consulate offices are there so, the thinking goes, I’ll  just pop in and they’ll stamp my passport.  All will be good.  Easy Breezy.

On day two of my stay in London, I Googled  Russian embassy and mapped out its location on the subway (Tube).  Instead of going to the Russia Visa application center, I was knocking on the door of the Russian ambassador. First mistake.

Ironically, I walked right passed security and was only approached when I came closer to the ambassador’s front door. Some man said,  “Can I help you?”  Well, of course, “I’m from the United States of America and need a Visa to Russia.”  The man’s expression went from helpful to annoyance.  Not another one. He told me that I am in the wrong place and that was that

Several Tube stops later, I arrived at the Russian Visa application center – little KGB.  It is what you imagine.  Grey building.  No windows.  And, bad-ass blonds out of a James Bond movie working behind the desk. These women look violent.  I took a number and waited. My number was called by KGB agent 345.  She pointed in the direction of a computer. “Go fill out application.” And, boom, dismissed.

Thank GOD there was a young boy of 19 managing the computer.  I will flirt and he will help me, right?  The answer is yes.

When we got to the question of “what did you study in college,” my heart started beating faster.  Shit.  I studied politics?  The red head of anxiety raced up my neck.

I told tiny teen I studied the Science of Politics and asked if  that is “Ok.”  I tried to make it sound less threatening and more academic by placing the word science in front of politics.  He said, “why, yes.”

He asked me, “what organizations do I belong to?”  I momentary forgot.  Mead Garden gardening club?  Public Relations Society?  YMCA?   Tiny teen has a follow up question, “what does the YMCA stand for?”  UH NO.  It’s a Christian based organization, what if the rowdy Russians are anti-christian — boot me now?  I responded – “Young, Men’s Christian Association.”  I probed his eyes.  Did I notice a change in color.  Did his pupils dilate?

Tiny teen said, “oh, just curious.  I walk pass the sign everyday.”

I enthusiastically offered, “you should look into joining.  It’s a great organization.”  What the he—.  I’m schlepping YMCA memberships to a Russian in London.  Stop the madness.

Tiny teen went on to ask me about my terrorist activities and if I have enough money to get out of Russia. Passed the terrorist questions with flying colors.  Money?  Really?  Do you think taking a one-way train across your country to China is a red flag that I’m here stay?  This question made me laugh – I mean, my face muscles hurt from the Chester-cat grin.  “This TallGirl does not do cold.  And, Siberia and Mongolia is a little brisk in September.  You have nothing to worry about.  Not defecting to Russia.”  Humor does not translate.  His lips did not curl. His pupils DID dilate.

Tiny teen turned from sweet and fragile to stony and cold.  KGB  was kickin-in. “You need to show me that you have money in your account.  Bring me your bank statements.  Your bank must be in the UK.  And, then we can process your Visa. Oh, you can not use this computer or printer.”

First, pray that BOA has an office in the UK.  Second, I had to find a place to  use a computer and a printer.  This is what you have to embrace about traveling.  Nothing is easy.  And, it’s this inconvenience that makes the experience memorable, right?  Not up for a Russian Visa experience on this day…

Walked up to randoms on the street — b/c this is what dirty, smelly travelers do – and asked where to find a computer with WiFi and a WORKING  printer.  Some dude in overalls directed me to the YMCA.  The name YMCA twice in an hour — It was a sign.  And, hell, I was the advertising/ marketing muse at the Y back home so it’s time to cash in on that card.

Sauntered in with an air of arrogance and announced that I used to work for the Y in Central Florida and could I PLEASE use their computer/printer.  Petite girl with large brown eyes stared through me and smiled.  Too bad. Soo sad.  Our computers aren’t working.  Well, that had a familiar ring to it.  She said the shop with a yellow sign may help me.  She gave me the “make a left, make a right, make a right and around the corner” directions and off I went…

The shop with a yellow sign charged me $5 to download and print the bank statements.   It’s called extortion in the states, but I’m desperate.

Tiny teen reviews my statements and asks me to return in 10 days or so.  The part about “or so” got me.  I said, “well I need the passport by August 5 because I’m going to Lebanon.”  He said, “that should not be a problem.”

Did I just hear a conditional verb, ‘should?’  No. No. No.  We need active, definite verbs here.  Can’t mess with the passport.  Then, out of no where and with no filter, I said, “Should is not a verb I like… I need my passport…. and I know where you work….”  Then I smiled my big pearly whites… Wait, did  I just threaten, unintentionally, a Russian visa agent – possibly KGB?  Nice one.  He just looked at me.  I walked off — fast.

Fast forward ten days and a trip to Scotland, I’m back at KGB central.  The Bond ladies are  there.  They look more violent than before.  On this day, I’m to meet my friend Betsy at her flat for some celebratory cocktails and dinner. I’ve given this whole Russia Visa thing about 2.5 hours round trip, including tube stops.  It is more than enough — or so I thought.

Walk in.  Security guard with a big Russian badge offers Visas aren’t given out until 4 pm.  Excuse me?  No one ever told me this.  Nor, was this on the website or posted anywhere in the building.  Maybe it is a new rule for that day. I graciously thanked him for his bad news for it was 2:30 and I have 1.5 hours until I can get in line for the Visa pick up.  I’m to be drinking cocktails at 4:30 with Betsy.

Shiny badge guy guy handed me number #862.  I flew out the door in search of WiFi.  This time, I brought my laptop.  Now, I need to let Betsy know I will be late for drinks and to get started without me….  I spied a Starbucks.  Fab.  This is going to be easy.  Starbucks must have WiFi.  I bought some of their laced coffee with extra stimulates and and inquire about WiFi.  No Wifi in this location.  Shit.  I sat.  Stared at the window.  Exhaled.  Chugged the S’bucks. And, mentally prepared for the journey to locate WiFi in London.  I have 49 minutes.  Did I mention London is one of the financial capitals of the world?

Back to the YMCA – again.  Nope, internet is down today.  Looks like all Ys across the world are the same.   Went into a few shops run by lovely Indians and asked if they have a computer, WiFi — anything.  Nope.  Then, marched over to the yellow sign shop.  Put down another $5 and used his computer for 29 seconds.  Extortion.. I told Betsy to hold the liquor — things have changed.

I go back to the windowless building.  Plopped in a plastic chair. And,  take in my surroundings.  Where am I?  Yes, the KGB Bond girls are all blond, beautiful and exude violence dressed in fitted tailored shirts, tight skirts, high heels and tan legs.  Hair is pulled tight off their necks for severity or flowing down their backs.  The all look like they would put Sean Connery to the ultimate test. Or, win an ultimate fight challenge.  Either way, they win.

To my left are four Russian men wearing black or white t-shirts speaking in low voices and ogling over these girls. I think one KGB girl started to purr at their attention.   About a half dozen “customers” are in the waiting room, yet the place is humming with energy.  My eyes set upon the Russian propaganda of “did you know” facts.  “Did you know the Russian Federation comprises of 83 federal subjects?”  Their way of communicating Russia IS democratic and not really a totalitarian-Putin regime.    “Did you know about Southeast Siberia’s Lake Baikal contains 20% of the world’s total unfrozen fresh water reserve?”  Need to remember to pack a jacket.

The  numbers are moving.  KGB girl screams, “number 672″  . I’m 862. There are 6 people in here. This is interesting. I kick my feet up and watch.

She continues to count.  No one moves.  We hit the 700’s…next is 800’s… Finally, my number.  I hand KBG girl my ticket.  She takes it without smiling or making eye contact.  She walks to the box and quickly thumbs through the envelops, not once, twice but four times.  That is when I knew we had a problem.  She walks back.  “You have a problem.”  No, I don’t think so sister.  I smiled, “No, you have a problem.  The email sent said my passport is ready.”  She starred at me — ice blue eyes rested on mine.  I’m ready for war…Lebanon is calling.  Her voiced rang out and her counterparts all stopped and looked at her.  She abruptly turned on her heel and stormed off in the back room.  Great.  I thought, “I’m stuck in London. Journey over.  I haven’t even gotten my blog up yet…”

Twenty minutes later or so, she pushed the door open, looking even angrier.  She goes through the boxes again and again.  I was not leaving.  Finally, she pulls out an envelop and smiles and even, giggles.  She hands it to me and then says, “good bye.”  I translated her gestures as the passport was filed under Ms. instead of my name.  Who cares.  I got my Visa and passport and I was off to Lebanon.

Next Visa is China and Vietnam, which will be taken care of while in Krakow, Poland.  To make a short story longer, I’m sitting under four wool blankets freezing my ass in Gliwice, Poland praying that I will have a passport upon my return to Krakow.  It’s August, and yes, I’m COLD!

I decided it is much more efficient to Fed-Ex my passport to some agency in DC who can secure my Visas in a matter of days instead of dealing with the harassment.

So, how did I get here?  I decided to stay in a nice hotel in Krakow, Poland, feeling certain that they had access or knowledge about express mail.  Ha.  Another joke in the traveling journal.  The receptionist told me that Fed Ex just entered the market, so they know nothing of Fed Ex.  They only use DHL, which is closed Friday afternoons and opens again on Monday.   I arrived on Friday afternoon.

Next day, I bribed some kid $40 to drive me to DHL terminal in the middle of some field – about 75 mins outside of Krakow – on a Saturday so my passport and Visa applications will be sent on Monday, arriving by Thursday to passport central in DC.  We got lost.  He pulled over and asked an older man riding a bike with baskets on the front and back about DHL’s location.  No clue.  The guy appeared snockered…

We knocked on someone’s home.  No clue. Never heard of DHL.   His GPS indicated DHL was in front of us — but all we saw was a green meadow with yellow flowers.  I sat back,  Smiled.  This is in God’s hands.

Don’t ask how, but we found the place.  No one spoke any English.   It is at these times where faith in God and trust in your fellow man comes into play. Really, what are my options?  I filled out some forms.  Smiled.  Handed the lady my passport and prayed.

The goal is for the passport to arrive by week’s end.  I sent my passport to DC and while I’m filling cracks and mixing cement in Gliwice, Poland for Habitat, they are working on securing Visas for China and Vietnam.  When I arrive back in Krakow next week, my passport will be at fancy hotel – Visas completed – without a problem.

Reality is — someone in DC has my passport.   If my passport goes MIA, it looks like I will be extending my trip in Poland. Or, God will just open another door.  Maybe, I’m too marry the HOT, Polish, tattooed brick layer and, together, we fill cracks with concrete, live off sauerkraut and Vodka and have magical Polish sex for the rest of my life. God has a plan…And, I need to keep my end of the bargain of having faith…