We have returned after spending three weeks traveling in Russia and I thought I would write a final piece based on our trip.
We saw a lot of the country and we spent our time with an unusual collection of Russian citizens. This was not a tour and living and traveling with these people offered experiences you would never have as part of a tour. Our experiences remind me of the advice given students taking advantage of a study abroad program not to go with other students they know. Live with the people you want to learn from.
One reason international travel is valuable is that it challenges stereotypes you may have had before your trip. What I know about Russia I had learned from CNN, a couple of books contrasting international models of education, and Tom Clancy novels.
Having said this, stereotypes persist because there is often a grain of truth here or there that one recognizes in actual situations. I have generated the following list that summarize some interesting experiences we had. I think with a little embellishment, some type of storyline, and a reordering of the events, I could fashion a credible “Clancy” novel of my own. All of the following experiences were real.
A roadside encounter with a gypsy. A man gesturing wildly runs into the road on the highway leading to Moscow. We stop and open the window. I am sitting in the front passenger seat. The man leans through the window and immediately places a large gold ring (I mean large) on my knee and begins pleading for assistance. Of course, I speak no Russian. Our friend, the driver, speaks to the man. The man assumes our friend is Muslim and calls him brother. All I recognize is the phrase “Allahu Akbar” and all I see is the two of them passing the gold ring back and forth and the man bowing to the driver. The man pleading for help keeps placing the ring on my knee. Our driver finally just begins slowly pulling away. The man is pleading for money to purchase gasoline. Our driver explains that he told the man, I am not Muslim and you have no way to purchase gas with any money I give you. He explains the ring is not gold but a nickel fake often sold to those who do not know better.
Boating on the Volga. One of the guys we met had just shipped in a boat from Florida and took us for a cruise on the Volga. We found a sand bar, beached the boat, and had lunch. Lots of opportunities for photos. This guy has a construction business and is building some of the structures for the olympics in Sochi.
We hang out in the dacha of a drug dealer. A dacha is a small area of land that is typically enclosed by a fence and grouped with many other similar parcels of land. A dacha gives city dwellers a chance to escape from their flats (small apartments) and get out into the country in order to have a small garden and a break from the crush of city life. Individual dachas are developed in very different ways depending on the resources, skill, and motivation of the residents. We actually saw this a lot in Russia – a space that looked generic and plain on the outside (of the fence in this case) and interesting and individualized on the inside. The “drug dealer”? – I noticed when we drove up to one dacha we spent time at that the walls of the dacha were topped with shards of glass – obviously an inexpensive defense against anyone who might want to scale the wall. I asked about this unusual defense and was told the owner I knew had purchased the dacha that had previously been owned by a drug dealer who used this location as part of his business and because of the opportunity to use a boat located on the river (a channel of the Volga) that backed the property as an escape route.
Vodka and caviar. Yes, we did have vodka and caviar. We had lots of great food. These folks (guys included) really liked to cook and we experienced many foods that were new to us. Cindy added several recipes to her collection.
I visit the American embassy and am detained at the gate. We have the connections we have in Russia because of Cindy’s work with technology applications in classrooms and the educators she has met on previous trips. Cindy and one of her Russian colleagues were invited to the embassy to discuss their work with technology and exchanges among technology using educators with embassy officials. I got to go along. The security was very impressive and I was not well prepared. I did not have my passport – I assumed I would be trusted. My North Dakota drivers license was eventually accepted as proof of my identity. Then there was that issue with the several shell casings and bullets in my camera bag. This may seem unusual (the embassy guards certainly thought so), but there was a very logical explanation. A son of one of the families we met in Volgograd had a metal detector and used it to find WWII relics. These relics were everywhere even this many years later. He presented me with the shell casings and an exploded mortar round as a present. These gifts ended up being a challenge to explain on several occasions (especially to Russian officials screening us for our plane trip home). These items are easy to see when your possessions go through a metal detector and immediately generate a great deal of interest. Try explaining why you are carrying such goods to someone who has a very limited command of English. A kid gave them to me! My possessions – my camera, my driver’s license, my shells, my fitbit (this was also novel so I just handed it over without trying to explain what it was) were left at the gate while we were inside. I have only pictures of the outside of the embassy.
We are given several large containers of mystery liquors and take them out of Russia in our bags. Homebrewing is becoming popular in the U.S.. The hobby seems to focus on beer and wine in our country. Russians prefer the hard stuff. We had vodka somehow made from honey and from traditional ingredients on many occasions. I trained for the drinking of vodka before I left and could pretty much keep up. On a different occasion a friend showed us two large jars (pickle jars) of mystery liquors and opened them in our honor. Before sampling, he tested the alcohol content of each liquid by lighting them on fire. He gave us large bottles of each to take home. I think these got through customs, but I am unsure because our bags have yet to arrive. We are still not sure what we have, but I have decided to call one brandy and another bourbon.
We take a road trip from Volgograd to Saint Petersburg avoiding interception by the police. The way most Russians drive is difficult to describe. Imagine a road packed with more trucks than you have ever encountered on an US interstate. Imagine many of these trucks are belching black smoke and seem unable to move at more than 40 mph (I am converting from the metic for you). Imagine the worst traffic jam you have ever experienced (Moscow on a Friday when everyone is heading to a dacha). Imagine crowding all of this into a two lane road with some of the deepest pot holes you have ever experienced. Now add Russian drivers. These guys (mostly guys it seemed) are insane and the rules that seem to govern their behavior beyond my understanding. They pull out to pass a dozen trucks in the face of oncoming traffic and assume that the vehicles in their lane will provide an opening to let them back in should it appear they cannot accomplish a pass. If passing in this fashion seems unlikely, they pull off onto the right shoulder and accelerate until they see an opening or encounter an obstacle (a sign, a bridge) that requires they try to get back on the road. They attempt to pull around vehicles stopped at stop signs. I never did understand some of this. The payoff for many of these moves seemed so small. Why attempt to pull around a vehicle or two at a stoplight? Many roads are not marked into lanes as you might expect. There is traffic going one way and traffic going the other, but all going one direction appear to be given great flexibility in deciding exactly how many lanes exist. The exertion required to drive like this for 5-6 hours must have been immense. Then there were the means to avoid the police. I rarely saw anyone stopped (you can be pulled over for what seemed to be random checks, but this did not happen to us). In Russia, you can be sent a ticket for speeding when your license plate is captured by a device that takes a picture of your car. This correspondence is referred to as a “letter of happiness”. Everyone seems to use radar detection equipment and the device in our cars were constantly beeping. We then searched for the hidden cameras and waved (just to amuse ourselves) when we passed. High speed was maintained until the radar warnings sounded.
We make purchases in the markets. Goods exchange hands in Russia in ways most of us rarely experience. The open air markets are an example. You can find pretty much whatever you want in the market – meat, vegetables, car parts, construction supplies. Bring money – no checks and no credit cards. We were told checks are very difficult to cash. I was searching for a certain type of glass for tea – a metal base with a separate glass container. I was told by my host not to speak because that would immediately greatly increase the price (this appeared to be the policy in many places including many official tourist sites that double the price of admission for foreign visitors). I mostly looked stern as the bargaining proceeded.
Military helicopters overhead. Along the road to Moscow there must be a training base for helicopter pilots. For a while, we could hear the chop, chop, chop overhead as we drove.
Is everyone here named Natasha or Dmitry? We probably spent time with a total of a 12 to 15 people. The variety of names seemed to be limited. Most of the women seemed to be named Natalia/Natasha and there were also several Dmitrys (Dima is the nickname).
I was in Moscow when Edward Snowdon was allowed to leave the Moscow airport and granted a one-year opportunity to live in Russia. No, I make no claim for meeting Mr. Snowdon.
We did meet a computer security expert and undercover agents. You will have to trust me on this – it would be inappropriate to share any more.
There you have it – the ingredients for my Russian novel. We met great and unbelievable giving people who live under very different circumstances. Ours was a very unique travel experience and our connections with these people will continue.