Day 1 - Thur, May 4 Finally airborne. Somewhere over the US 3 hours into an 8 hour flight to London. Yes, we were supposed to leave yesterday, but we realized at 4 in the morning that we could not tie up all the loose ends at home and get all the crap we’d like to take overseas into our luggage. We bought one of these ridiculously huge duffel bags on wheels from REI called a “Wheely Beast”. The name is appropriate since it can swallow up just about anything, and the problem is we let it. I pity the fool who will have to carry it when the wheels can’t be used (I guess that would be me). Anyway, we packed, repacked, then repacked again, then finally agreed “screw it, we’ll give clothes away or send gear home if we have to”. After weeks of late nights and getting on each other’s nerves, we had reached the planning saturation point and cut ourselves loose. Basically, if it’s not done by now, it’s not gonna get done and we’ll deal with it on the road. Once we accepted that, a sort of relief passed over us as the plane took off and Naomi fell fast asleep. Of course she could sleep standing up in the middle of Grand Central Station, but that’s another story.
So what do you say when the dream of a lifetime actually starts to take shape? Sometimes we thought this would never happen. The last few weeks have been hell with wrapping up work, packing and trying to sort out One World Foundation and its website. The latter is virgin territory for us, so we're learning new things all the time. We've retired our calculators and put our CPA certificates in storage and are now not only founders of a non-profit, but also webmasters, logo designers, promoters, propagandists, interviewers and writers. In spite of all of this and an overwhelming positive response from family, friends and coworkers, I still think the odds are very much against us as it is very difficult to make a presence on the internet - we are therefore counting on all supporters to bookmark this site and pass the word for us. We're particularly stressing out over the video aspects of the website, which got us thinking about the whole project in the first place. We've got a great Sony digital video camera and a Sony laptop Pentium III 500 mhz, blah blah blah, but we still can’t sort out publishing RealVideo to the website. I think the concept is still valid and had some great interviews in LA before leaving, although most people have been reluctant to go on camera.
Before leaving, it seemed like a series of “lasts” as if we weren’t coming back or something: my last day at work, my last In-n-Out double double burger, my last call to Mom and Dad, my last Chili Johns lunch (although that one will be with me well into my journey). I’ve left the US many times before, but never for 11 months and never while unemployed with no job responsibilities to worry about. I can’t even imagine what will go through my head when it is relatively clear. So far, my mind is going a mile a minute and there’s no way my fingers can keep up (not to mention my PC battery). The good news is now I can actually read this after I type. This is in stark contrast to the hand-written spiral notebooks in storage right now that even I can’t read sometimes (which may be a good thing). If these ruminations ever make it to publication, We're going to need one hell of an editor (or another 11 months) just to put it together. At the moment, I’ve taken a modified stream-of consciousness approach with little editing, although I don’t think it will last. I’m not a big fan of that Allen Ginsburg stuff. “Howl” may have been a great poem, but parts of “Indian Journals” were a bit out there. No doubt I will be the only person interested in some of these words in the future; besides, we will try to save the more boring personal stuff for another (non-public) audience. We’ve also been spitting out a lot of thoughts and ideas into the other areas of the website, so please check them out - especially to find answers to reasonable questions like "why in the hell would you take on such a huge project?", "do you really think you can make a difference?" and our favorite: "are you crazy?!" The short answers are "because somebody had to", "yes", and "probably". The longer answer is contained in the advise I received from an older Chinese man I me during one of my first trips to Asia. I was working late in the local office of our Taiwan affiliate, when the janitor was making his rounds. He had learned excellent English working for a British diplomat and asked why I was working so late. I said something to the effect of having much work to do and little time to do it and he said "that is the problem with people like you. You should know there are only three things you need to enjoy life: health, time and money. When you are young you are full of life and have no real concept of time, but you have no money. When you are old enough to work, you still have your health and now you have a little money, but you have no time. Then you are old - you have saved plenty of money and retired so you have time, but your health has failed you. So when is it that you will enjoy all three things at once?". Some how (and for some reason) life has conspired to allow us good health (well, pretty good) and provide us adequate financial resources (depending how you look at it), so we decided to make the time come to us by quitting our jobs. Maybe the reason life has conspired thusly, is so we can give back this humble offering to life called One World Foundation.
Some beliefs regarding altruism,/philanthropy/
"charity work" I've always had before we even
got started on this project relate to my long-held belief in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Of all the philosophers we touched on in school, he is the one that made
the most sense (not that I paid that much attention back then).
Oversimplified, it goes something like this:
All humans strive to satisfy needs which become more and more abstract,
global and philosophical as each previous level of needs is satisfied.
For example, the first is a need to physically survive, i.e. obtain food,
shelter and clothing. Only when the most basic of animal needs are met we can
progress to the next levels, which include care of family and community, then
success in business, love, etc., and finally self-actualization, which is where
it starts to get fuzzy, but roughly translates to figuring out
why you are here. I have seen for
myself that people struggling to make ends meet for themselves have little time
to think of charity or philosophize on their true life or the human condition.
This issue manifests itself in the Amazon when farmers try to feed
themselves most efficiently, neglecting the long-term affects on the rainforest;
in Africa and India when the desire for the security of a large family
contributes to a starving population; and in the US where millions who live
under the poverty line (in the richest country on earth) will never even
consider giving to charity. These
are all very complex issues and I am only scratching the surface, but these
behaviors are understandable given the cultural and environmental training
resulting from never having their basic survival needs met.
However, the lack of satisfaction of basic needs is why I believe it is
imperative for all of us fortunate ones to help those less fortunate to reach
the level of survival, and even comfort, necessary to start contributing to the
bigger issues of the communities we live in and the planet as a whole. I
guess my point is, one can only imagine what human beings would be capable of if
each of us were free to explore our potential.
We do realize this is all very touchy subject matter because satisfaction and happiness is very subjective and often culturally defined. When I interviewed my good friend Dan, he said “How can I tell someone in Bangladesh to just be happy?” The answer is you can’t because it would not only be condescending but paternalistic and patronizing as well. Someone in Bangladesh may be able to teach Americans a thing or two about satisfaction because they have learned to expect less material comfort and can get by with so much less and still love their family and friends and lead a complete and fulfilling life.
Day 2 Fri, May 5, London. We really lucked out and arrived on a glorious sunny day. I’ve seen very few of these and I lived in London for three years. It’s a very strange feeling coming back to a familiar place after a while. The windows of the cab flash by some pub or building or park that triggers a fuzzy recollection from some corner of my past. We checked into the Marriott Marble Arch, showered and tried to make it to the huge Ferris wheel that just opened for the millennium. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it was sold out for the day. We still had a good time watching fire jugglers, touts, gymnasts and assorted drunks in Leicester Square. Same old London. We had great English comfort food of Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips, and of course a pint of my old favorite Guinness. The crap they sell in the US is definitely not the same Guinness. There’s nothing like an ancient wood-paneled English pub to ease one into a global journey in comfort (except for the obnoxious flashing gaming machines, of course).
Day 3, Sat May 6. Three
hour flight to St. Petersburg on BA. I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip because
I had visited this town before in 1990 when it was still Leningrad.
At that time we had to book a tour with the state-run Intourist travel
agency because that was the only way foreigners were allowed to travel around
the city. We took a boat from Helsinki and once we were in Leningrad the
Intourist guide was with us the whole time.
We weren’t even allowed to leave the hotel by ourselves.
What I recall about that trip is that Leningrad was one of the most
impressive cities I have ever seen, with the huge palace square, incredible
Hermitage museum and mighty Neva River and beautiful churches and canals.
Now, ten years and a global economic shift away from communism later,
this is sure to be a much different country.
If anyone has anything interesting to say for the website, this should be
the place. And one more
thing - although we are tackling a serious subject, we still plan to have
a helluva good time on the journey and relay some funny stories along the
way. After all, maintaining a sense of humor and the ability to laugh
at oneself is a very powerful way
to share in the human experience.
And one more thing - although we are tackling a serious subject, we still plan to have a helluva good time on the journey and relay some funny stories along the way. After all, maintaining a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at oneself is a very powerful way to share in the human experience.
Well, one sign that Russians aren’t yet completely
Westernized is that the customs declaration form handed out on the flight is in
Russian only. We probably could
have muddled through with Spanish, French or German, or any sequence of letters
that didn’t look backwards to us, but we had to ask for help.
The flight crew couldn’t help, so we asked a Russian national sitting
behind us. He was very helpful, but
his English was limited. We got to
a section of yes/no check boxes and rather than translate, he just said “these
no for you”. Naomi said "OK, but what are they asking?".
“Oh, never mind, these no for you”.
We agreed that was probably a safe default answer, but nevertheless
imagined some of the questions might be: Are you bringing any computing devices
into Russia? Are you bringing any
foreign currency into Russia? Do
you promise not to deal drugs or commit any other crimes in Russia?
Will you be leaving Russia before your visa expires?
Our “no” answers to these questions were sure to invite memorable
types of body searches and government-sponsored accommodation.
Our concerns about making it through customs unscathed
were completely unfounded. The
customs agent didn’t even blink when she saw Wheely Beast and our customs
declaration - my, how times have
changed. We were met at the airport
by the drivers we had hired from our hotel via email (this, too took a load off
our mind). My attempt to break the
ice with “Hey, Lada – good car!” were net with “I’m sorry, Lada bad
car”. That was it for the
communication since they blared Russian pop music through the rear speakers as
soon as we got in. They were great
guys though who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the 30-minute ride as they made their
own lane all the way into town. In
the suburbs of St. Petersburg they don’t waste money on lane markings since
they would be ignored anyway. This
is a little different than Italy, for example, where lanes are marked, but the
driving is the same. All in all a
very exhilarating drive. We were
happy to find that the website was indeed accurate for the Russian International
Youth Hostel – the rooms are very Spartan, but clean and the staff is quite
friendly. This is the first accommodation of this type in all of Russia
and was started by an American a few years ago.
The good write-ups in press and travel books attracted us, in addition to
the location, their ability to provide the required “invitation” for us to
obtain a tourist visa, the lack of tourist-friendly hotels or Western chains,
and a desire to meet the “New Russia”. We could have stayed at a Soviet-era
business hotel at the tourist-gouging price of over $200, but rates like these would chop
several months off our 11-month journey.
It only took a 20-minute stroll down St. Pete’s main
thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, to
realize this is indeed an entirely different city than the Leningrad of 1990.
The beer and bread lines have been replaced by Adidas, Sony, Bennetton,
Givenchy, Hush Puppies, Baskin Robbins, Yves St. Laurent, Versace, Kentucky
Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. This
capitalism thing is really taking hold, and fast.
However, one of the problems when there is a huge economic shift from
government-planned to individual efforts, is the immediate creation of an upper
class with favorable government ties and relations.
The differences between these “haves” and the “have nots” in the
New Russia are staggering and the opportunity for corruption and unfair
practices (i.e. Mafia) are numerous.
Re-reading the previous paragraph, I realized I should
state caveat #2: I am not an expert on politics, history, world economics, or
anything else other than being myself. I
am an accountant by training and a traveler and writer by desire.
The observations I make are personal opinions based on things I have
experienced, seen, heard or read about, tempered by every other experience and
lesson I have had. They are by
definition subjective and may very well prove inaccurate in the long run.
How’s that for a disclaimer? My
attorney friends would be proud (I think).
Anyway, the walk around Nevsky brought me to a video store packed with American films of the past year or so. The clerk told me he loved “End of Days” and “Fight Club” the best, although he enjoyed Kim Basinger in LA Confidential. I offered to buy the poster of LA Confidential. And Unforgiven as souvenirs, but he refused payment and offered it as a “gift”. He and his staff were very cool.
Day 4, Sunday May 7. Walked down Nevsky Prospect. The town is a bustling metropolis. We stopped for real beef stroganoff at the Stroganoff Palace – it was excellent. We found an internet café and checked email for $2 an hour. The place was a riot - a basement in a back alley lit only by 14 computer screens - mostly playing video games like Doom and Quake. Naomi was the only woman in the place It was great contacting home so easily. This type of travel communication is a universe ahead of just 5 years ago. Unfortunately, they would not let me hook up the laptop, so I could not update the website. We carried on to St. Isaacs Cathedral, modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. I remembered how colorful it was.
Religion in Russia is an interesting topic, as it was officially “outlawed” by the communist regime (Lenin: “religion is the opiate of the masses”), but flourished nonetheless, developing into one of the most devout branches of Christianity. How the Bolsheviks ever thought they could eliminate hundreds of years of Russian faith by mere proclamation is a testament to their doomed mission and inevitable failure. From the cupola of the cathedral we got great views of the city and palace square. For dinner, despite looking around for a real Russian place we wound up at Carroll's, an American-style burger joint. We were the only customers besides three people working a business deal which appeared to involve the exchange of a pager for a 6-inch stack of ruble notes.
Day 5, Monday, May 8. Walked through depressing, crumbling residential back streets to Smolny Cathedral and Institute, the home base of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. We saw a great children’s amusement park with rides. Naomi took some black and white photos of the children at play, looking very much like American kids anywhere enjoying a swings, carousels and bumper cars. We stopped for a great borscht lunch for $3, then on to the Church of the Resurrection (or Savior’s Blood), an incredibly colorful onion-dome structure evoking our collective memory of what a Russian church looks like.
The church now has a supposedly non-religious purpose, the Museum of Mosaics. They were beautiful, as was the inlaid marble floor. There was a souvenir market outside, with very polite salespeople, compared to the rude touts at the Smolny. It reminded us of how sad we will be throughout the trip that we cannot buy something from everyone, especially recognizing the huge disparity in our wealth – what passes as dinner money for us may be a months earnings to many of the people we will meet a long the way. We of course, could not imagine what life would be like if our livelihood depended on trying to sell to strangers in our home country in a language we can’t speak. We had our first good interview with Roman, a shopkeeper. He is an atheist who said that “life” is the most important thing in life, as well as spending time with his wife and kids. We took a taxi to the Peter and Paul fortress across the river because it was so cold and windy. The fortress is historically significant as the first settlement in town and positioned well to defend (and view) the rest of St. Petersburg. They have an exhibit of the prison cell where Peter tortured his own son to death. I’m sure there’s a very interesting back-story there, but I haven’t heard it yet. Had dinner at a high-class Spanish place, again with very few other customers.
Day 6, Tuesday, May 9 Victory Day in Russia, commemorating the day the Nazis surrendered in WWII to end “The Great Patriotic War”. The celebration is especially poignant for Petersburgers as they held out under siege and blockade for 900 days before the Nazis gave up, losing over a million people to bombing and starvation. The descendents of those survivors are a proud, hearty lot, but not overly friendly to foreigners, in our experience. To date, the most friendly, helpful people have been the staff at the Hotel. We took the metro to meet a bus to Petershof, the fountained Summer Palace of Peter the Great, but the line was enormous. We came back to Nevsky and walked to the winter palace and Hermitage. They were having parades and events for the holiday – it was great to see all the old veterans and cold-warrior comrades with their medals proudly displayed, much like our Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays. The Hermitage was closed, and it was very warm and sunny, so we decided to walk around the river, summer garden and back to Nevsky. We stopped at the Grand Hotel Europe to see how the other half lived. It was nice, but ridiculously over-priced at $250. We got in a cab to ask about a 10-minute ride to Nicolas Cathedral, and the driver said “no meter- fixed price - $15”! We stopped him, got out and hailed a regular metered taxi which cost 28 rubles ($1!). Either St. Pete gets a lot of rich tourists, or they still need to work on this capitalism supply and demand thing. St. Nicholas provided one of the most pleasant walks, along a pretty canal with several onion-domes. We came home and crashed for the third day in a row, screwing up our evening plans of visiting a Russian tavern. We must still be jet-lagged or very tired. Naomi can nap at will and wake up energized, but if I fall asleep I want to stay asleep. Maybe it has something to do with daylight lasting until 11:30 PM. I can't imagine what my body clock would be like during the upcoming "white nights", when it never really gets completely dark.
Day 7, Wed, May 10. A comedy of errors all day. The kind of day we will have plenty of throughout the journey, so it is good practice to try out our patience and flexibility. We started with futile efforts to get the website up and running, followed by futile efforts to buy our train tickets to Moscow, followed by struggles with bureaucrats to get an English-language tour of the Hermitage museum, concluding with going the wrong way on the subway twice. We were able to laugh about it by the time we got home – especially the way the ticket agent at the train station slammed her window closed and pulled the shade down just as Naomi was handing her a piece of paper. I guess she was on lunch break, but she saw us wait in line for about 20 minutes before then. The aspects of capitalism that developed the customer service concepts like “the customer is always right” and “service with a smile” got stuck on some Aeroflot flight to Siberia 10 years ago. We have noticed a marked difference in the way salespeople deal with us depending on whether they have a monopoly on what you need or if you have a choice. The vendors at the souvenir market were bending over backward – in English – because their competition was right next door, while train employees, museum staff, and strangers who have a monopoly on what you need act quite differently. On another whining note, going the wrong way on the subway is very easy since all signs are in Russian with Cyrillic lettering while the tourist maps are in Latin lettering. In addition, the same train station will have a different name for each line that stops there – one even has four names, not that any of them are written on the wall when the train pulls up. We've started our own language based on English readings of Cyrillic letters, sort of like the Spanglish we use in Latin America. In Russlish something pronounced "Novokuznetskaya" by Russians is pronounced "Hobokukar" by us because that’s the way it looks to us single-language imbecile products of the American education system. Making a game of it helps us get over the lack of tourist support in this country. Of course these complaints about the tourist industry are minor when you consider the types of real problems public officials face with domestic economic and corruption issues. I don’t imagine making foreigners feel at home is high on their priority list right now.
Day 8, Th May 11 – Tried the internet café again, but could not get my software to work. Wrote a nasty email to Mindspring to complain. Lunch of grilled pork and soup in a tiny café off palace square, then made it to the Hermitage in the rain for our pre-arranged English tour. Our guide was very knowledgeable and provided some great history and background to the city and the palace (although she was a little vague on Peter’s tortured son and Catherine the Great’s many lovers, particularly the horse -hey, I don’t make up the stories, I just repeat them). The Hermitage itself was even more amazing than I remember. It combines the luxurious setting of a European palace with the most incredible collection of art. The collection is so vast it would take weeks to see it all at just minutes per room. We concentrated on European painting and sculpture, with many of the old favorites represented: Da Vinci, Raphael, Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt, and a whole slew of impressionists.
I really liked “Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rubens – the look of forgiveness and love on the father’s face and the battered appearance of the son. There’s also a Da Vinci Madonna with the same enigmatic smile as the Mona Lisa in Paris. The impressionist galleries were amazing – it’s impossible to capture the power and emotion of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes in a regular photo or print, so I tried to zoom in with the video to study the shape of the canvas. The effect was incredible – a mountainous landscape of hills and valleys and waves of color up close become flowers, shawls and faces from 10 feet away.
How he saw this while painting I’ll never know, but that’s what makes him a genius and me an admirer. He was, of course, crazy (or sick or alcoholic, or intoxicated by painting chemicals depending on who you believe) and wound up shooting himself . There were also some Matisse works and many other photo worthy images - a few are below.
After the museum we walked around for dinner, stopping at a casino just to see what that would be like, but they would not let us in with “sport shoes”. We wound up at a British-type expat pub near Moscow Station (which can now be called Coca-Cola square). The pub had the TV tuned to the Russian version of “Who wants to be a Millionaire”, with their own squirrelly-looking Russian Regis Philbin. It’s a pity they were playing for only a million rubles though because that’s only US$40,000. We gathered our luggage from the hostel and got a short taxi to the train station for our 11:35 overnight to Moscow. We had a great time struggling with Wheely Beast up and down stairs, providing pretty good entertainment for the onlookers. We settled into our cabin in plenty of time, but then realized we left the voucher for our Moscow hotel at the hotel we just left. With just 15 minutes left to departure, I had to find a phone to call them to get the address. When I asked the conductor, she made sure I understood that the train would be leaving on time, with or without me. I ran down the mile-long platform (“ran” is a relative term given my half-lame back). I felt like a spy in one of those black-and-white cold war movies. I made the call and returned with two minutes to spare. The first-class cabin was pretty cozy, though bunks were fairly narrow. As we rolled out of St. Petersburg I was happy to have seen it again, but disappointed we missed the Peterhof fountains, Dostoyevsky’s old haunts, and the place were the infamous Rasputin was drugged, shot, stabbed, beaten and finally drowned. Oh well, more stories await in Moscow.
Day 9, Fri May 12 – Awoke to the 7:30 wrap on our cabin door. I slept great rocked to sleep by the train. Naomi didn’t fare as well, but I dispute her claims of snoring. We asked a porter with a huge cart to lead us to the taxi stand and he led us with a vigor unmatched by our sleepy condition. There’s nothing like running along a freezing train platform 10 minutes after waking up. We fell behind as he pushed through the crowd. It was nice to see someone else stared at for a change. After some haggling with very unofficial-looking taxis, we got a ride to the Moscow Guest house on a gray, soviet residential street. It was cozy enough, this time with our own (very hot) shower, but the staff was still learning hospitality. From our past travels and 9 days into this journey, we’ve got this arrival in a new city thing down cold: change money, negotiate taxi, get to the hotel and unpack, get a map, find nearest ATM/bank/market/newsstand, ask about internet access and local sights, then figure out the metro. If you get 50% of this in the first day, you’re doing pretty good. The metro in Moscow is a thing of beauty. It has all the cleanliness, order, and efficiency of St. Petersburg's, but adds museum-quality mosaics, statues, chandeliers, lighting, brass, gold leaf and marble work. It’s really incredible compared to other more utilitarian metros like New York, Paris or London.
We eventually made it to Red Square. As a seasoned (maybe jaded?) traveler, few things take my breath away, but the view of St. Basil’s literally stopped me in my tracks, even in the blustering wind and snow. It is so fairy-tale looking, I couldn’t believe something so fanciful and colorful was really there. Legend has it, Ivan the Terrible was so smitten with his commissioned work that he had the artists and architects blinded so they could never build anything as beautiful. I always wondered how he got that name.
We stopped by the huge, monolithic Russia Hotel to check the rate in case it was significantly better than our room. The location could not be beat, but the price, service and attitude (After being ignored at the counter for 10 minutes) made us pass. The most amazing part was the row of slot machines in the lobby facing Red Square. Even if we tried, we could not have come up with a more poignant image of the conversion of Reagan’s “Evil Empire” of communism to the competing evils of Capitalism. One of the more popular one-arm bandits was called “California Dreamin”.
Day 10, Sat May 13 – Our included breakfast was at the café restaurant downstairs and was definitely less impressive than the St. Petersburg hostel. Our cereal, hot coffee and boiled eggs were replaced by some kind of boiled hot dog meat and cold tea, delivered to blaring Russian pop music. I glanced at the TV over the bar and noticed the American soap opera Sunset Beach dubbed in Russian. The views of the Pacific Ocean made me homesick and I’ve only been gone 10 days (oops). We had not yet satisfied all of our “new city” to-do list as we had not yet been able to find a decent map. We proceeded to spend all day looking for one, from the newsstands to bookshops, to the famous GUM department store, and finally to the Metropol hotel, another overpriced European chain hotel, with stuffy, condescending doormen who looked down their noses at us non-guests. We finally got one and returned to St. Basils for more photos and a tour of the cramped, twisting, eerie inside.
We stopped back at the Russia Hotel to negotiate our Ballet tickets with the Intourist agent. We finally arranged front-row balcony tickets for $50 each. There were undoubtedly bought by Intourist for much less, but we wanted this one indulgence while in Russia. We continued on to the newly rebuilt Christ The Savior cathedral, once destroyed by Stalin and replaced with a municipal pool. It rises majestically from the shores of the Moscow River in shiny white marble, topped with gold Hershey kisses-shaped domes. The interior was closed, but the bells put on a great show. Outside, we had our best street food to date, a baked potato smothered in butter, cheese ham and tuna salad followed by a ham and cheese crepe/bliny. We had our first opportunity to use our handy “point-it” international illustrated communicator when my imitation of a pig caused more laughter than understanding. The food was definitely worth the embarrassment. We went across the street to the Pushkin Museum to view their collection of sculpture and painting. A great collection, but incomparable to the Hermitage.
We got lost on the metro again and took a long time to find a sympathetic stranger. Maybe it’s just this recent bitter cold spell and the continuing economic depression, but most people seem depressed, wearing a dour, serious expression that changes only from annoyance to disgust when we approach with a sheepish “do you speak English”. Although there have been a few helpful strangers, most have reacted is if I had asked them if I could relieve myself in their borscht. Naomi has perfected the look precisely and has threatened to start using it whenever I ask her for something. A couple of times a grunt and a vague wave of the hand got us lost even more. I know generalizations are a dangerous and slippery slope, but we can only speak from our actual experiences. In a week here, we’ve seen an attitude that is hard to describe; a sort of arrogance, but not the laughing, back-slapping, “I’m rich and I know it” American arrogance, but more of a somber, life is hell, “don’t mess with me because I’ve endured more than you can ever imagine” stoic type of arrogance. On the positive side, we’ve made our first appointment to meet with a Servas host couple on Tuesday. They will hopefully be able to shed a lot more light on this and fill in the blanks; we are trying to keep an open mind, in light of our One World Foundation objectives. I know the Russian people have suffered a great deal under 74 years of totalitarian communism, and now face a huge battle to convert to free markets and democracy. Things may be looking up now that new blood is in charge, but the new President, Vladimir Putin, a man who by all accounts has never smiled in his life and always looks either extremely constipated or ready to kick somebody’s ass (being a black belt and all). Unfortunately, one of his first acts after taking office was to have an armed raid by masked commandos on the offices of a TV and newspaper company that has been critical of the Kremlin. However, the other side of this story is that the head of this company is one of the billionaire oligarchs that took over the economy when communism collapsed and businesses were privatized - getting rich while typically "unconnected" Russian suffered. How these people got so rich so easily and where their money came from is a matter of great speculation. It's a little like the Wild West in the US - someone has to bring some law and order or those with power will continue to rape the country, but how do you balance this with personal and civil rights? We also read in the local English-language newspaper today that one of the former KGB agencies has forced all Russian ISPs to attach their monitoring devices so they read everyone's email. Unfortunately, this has not caused much protest in Russia because people are more concerned about finding a decent-paying job and eating well. This country has a long way to go to real freedom.
Day 11, Sunday May 14 – We decided to try Arabat, a pedestrian shopping street that retained the pre-soviet architecture. Each of the stalls had pretty much the same merchandise, matroyshka dolls, lacquered boxes, t-shirts and fuzzy fur hats. The t-shirts has some pretty funny anti-Lenin slogans on them now that free speech is rampant (although tourists were the only ones buying). Since it was still freezing cold, Na tried on a few hats but they were so puffy they made her head look three times it’s normal size. She finally settled on a knit ski-type (black, of course) that was a little more conservative and can actually be worn outside Russian without too many weird glances. She bought from two very cute old ladies who posed for a photo with her. In sharp contrast to the sweet old ladies, was the younger artist who cursed me and flipped me off when I said I was “just looking”. I was tempted to follow her into the building she ran into as she was cursing me, but thought better of it, as my friend Bruce’s story of a Russian prison passed through the back of my head.
We met a shopkeeper named Anton (Tony) who had spent a semester in Sacramento studying. I asked him if I could interview him and he said as long as my questions were not political. On tape he said “as long as you have two good friends, life is OK” . I hope the tape is OK. We interviewed one of the street artists (after buying a painting of St. Basil’s from him) who focused on art and family.
The most interesting part of Arabat was a tile wall covered with little square paintings of each tile by a different painter. Some were very quaint and dated, like Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts holding hands in space. It was very cute - one even had similarities to our One World Foundation logo.
On the metro a guy passed out and rolled into Naomi’s legs. He curled up and napped there for a couple stops, then woke up to curse everyone on the train (presumably for letting him sleep undisturbed) before stumbling onto the platform. On the way to Novetskiya Monastery, we stopped at Kievskaya station to video tape the excellent communist murals depicting Lenin and the triumph of the working class. Apparently, my taping upset a policeman enough to demand my papers. I fumbled for my passport, but no matter how many jokes I made, he was not laughing. He examined my passport and visa and waved my away with a grunt. Maybe he was bored because he hadn’t busted a Chechen terrorist all day. Anyway, the monastery was very calming and sedate – old run down buildings within crenellated walls, with a calming lake next door.
We continued on to the event of the day – the Bolshoi ballet’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. The theater was amazing – it only seats 1,200 in a gilded gold and red auditorium, so it was very cozy. Unfortunately, it was full of tourists (like us) snapping photos and acting obnoxious (unlike us). Once the performance started, however, it was excellent – the grace of the dancers combined with the emotional and driving composition and watching the string section move in unison was a real experience, especially with the most famous and talented ballet company in the world. The walk afterward through redemption gate towards St. Basil’s was the perfect cap to a quintessential Russian evening.
For dinner we stopped at Armadillo bar and restaurant just off Red Square for dinner of Tex-Mex food. There we discovered that Moscow has not one, but thee different phone systems, each with a different card to operate it. I bought my third type of card and called the young woman from Servas we were to meet tomorrow, Unfortunately, she had a business engagement that precluded her from meeting with us. When we got back to the hotel, we tried to call our moms for mother’s day, but the lines were busy (which is probably a good sign)
Day 12, Monday, May 15 – The weather finally broke today and sun woke us up, so we were anxious to get out and into the Kremlin – a tour that was unheard of when I was a kid. It was really incredible to be walking around the very grounds that were forbidden just a few years ago, imagining the cold war spies lurking about. Just to highlight the effect, we were chased from our resting place while reading by one plain-clothes guard. The churches inside the Kremlin complex were amazing, with five-hundred-year old mosaics and paintings of Russian heroes and religious martyrs.
They also had what was said to be the largest bell ever created. Unfortunately, it was too large to actually use and a chunk broke off the first time it was rung. Ivan's cannon was also not for real use. We continued to the Armory, which housed the private collections of the czars. The costumes, crowns, jewelry, tableware and various tchotskys were incredible, but the most amazing items were the Faberge eggs created for the family of the last czar, Nicholas II. As in other European countries, viewing these imperial treasures makes it easier to understand why starving masses would rise up against such opulence.
After the Kremlin we went home to pack and I talked Naomi into going out to see how young “New Russia” kids enjoy themselves. We really wanted to see what had happened to nightlife in the past ten years. Of course, Naomi was not in to casinos, so we picked a couple of the tamer-sounding places out of the Moscow Times and went by metro. Unfortunately, the place, Papa Johns, was dead at 11 PM on a Monday. It did look like a very cool place otherwise, though. It could have been in any US city.
Day 13, Tuesday, May 16. We woke early to make sure we made it to our Servas hosts’ house on time. Unfortunately, the taxi we ordered would take over an hour to arrive. Thankfully, Valentina was understanding and was waiting for us when we finally arrived. She was very welcoming and hospitable and her English was very good. She made us a great quick lunch of fried potatoes, onions and cucumber, of course topped off by a welcoming shot of Smirnoff Vodka. She had to work, so we went touring again, back to Red Square. We wanted to get some interviews but it was so cold the only people out there were the same sellers of furry hats, stamps and post cards we’d seen all week. We did collect some dirt from Red Square. Naomi and I had been discussing an appropriate souvenir to take at each of our destinations. Since it does not take up much space, we decided on a symbolic pinch of earth from each of the major sites to be stored in a water bottle until we return from the states. This is in keeping with the environmental aspects of One World Foundation. What we will do with our soil from every corner of the world we have yet to decide, but at the time it sounded like a good idea. Of course, it could very well have been the vodka talking. We then made a short trip to Donesky monastery, but it was mostly closed. When we returned to Valentina’s, she made us a wonderful dinner of fried chicken breasts, rice, vegetables, and herring with onions and vodka – all washed down with a special Russian cold drink of fermented black bread (the name escapes me – something like Krak). Her husband, Leonid, returned from work and we discussed their past travels in the zoology and geology fields of study and opinions of current events. Unfortunately, the opportunity did not present itself to interview them for the foundation. They would have made excellent contributions because they have traveled to other countries and have a more global viewpoint than the people we have met on the street. They actually provide a perfect example of our basic premise that once you are exposed to people from different backgrounds and nationalities (as they have been with their scientific careers), you develop an understanding, tolerance and affinity towards those people. They gave us a more rounded understanding of the Russian people and made us realize that the problems we encountered may have been primarily due to communication issues and the current economic situation. They were very helpful and bent over backward to help us, particularly with our email and website problems. We slept in a cozy fold-out bed in their guest room.
For the continuation of our journey into June, please click here: Journal May 17 - June 1, 2000.
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