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Published: October 5th 2018
I am in Russia! St. Petersburg, to be specific. It's been a long and eventful twenty-nine hours since I climbed off the plane in Helsinki, Finland yesterday afternoon. Now it is bedtime; I can read the time on my clock, but my body is very confused and quite tired. This time I am travelling with Trafalgar, and so far I am very relieved that everything has been excellent. After Bill's and my less than pleasant trip with Cosmos this summer, I didn't know what to expect with this company and worried a bit that this might be another mistake. But so far all is very well. Much information is given during our bus travels, and the hotels are located perfectly in city centers. There are 47 of us on this tour, filling a whole bus, but it seems to be a comfortable number. People come from all over the world (which I thoroughly enjoy), travelling from Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Nicaragua, Indonesia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. Part of the pleasure of these multi-country tours is meeting people from all over the world! That, to me, is exciting in itself. Our program director, Malcolm, is exceptionally good, and, as it was when I travelled to Nepal and Bhutan last October, our guide and the bus driver, Arturs, seem to be very good friends; they work together extremely well, making this a pleasant and easy trip for everyone. I am happy to have them both together on this journey.
We had only one night in Finland so far, but our circuit will take us back to Helsinki at the end. Tired as I was from not sleeping very much on the plane two nights ago, my four year old seatmate unintentionally waking up kicking me several times as she tossed and turned throughout that long night, I expected to have a wonderful sleep stretched out in a comfortable bed last night; blame it on jet lag, but I woke up at 1AM (local time) and could not get back to sleep. So I am hoping tonight, my first night in Russia, will be a normal, good rest. Maybe even with dreams. We'll see.
We left Helsinki early this morning in hopes of being the first bus in line at the Russian passport control. No one ever knows how long it will take to process each one of us through; it could take two hours or four hours or even more. We just have to accept what happens. The guards could even ask to go through all our bags. One or more of us could be stopped and questioned, or even taken away to the dreaded back room. Even though we had all gotten our visas beforehand, many of us were more than a bit nervous about being successfully processed through and admitted into Russia. I asked Malcolm what would happen if one of us was detained, and he replied that we would leave with the same number of travellers that arrived. That offered some relief from the worry, but looking at the closed doors at each of the passport control booths I could only envision what might happen when one of us went in and that door closed behind, separating us from all the others. Some of us tried to think positively, but since I've travelled to so many countries, including ones that Russians might take exception to, I thought if anyone was to be detained, I would be the one; I have already been stopped at many places, including in the US, and questioned about why I've travelled to such and such countries, hence my concern. So I practiced saying"Dobryy den," good day, and not smiling, and trying not to look the passport control officer in her eyes, but those things are difficult for me. I could not help looking at her and watching her severe expression as she worked. I wondered if she liked her job, or if she even ever thought about whether she liked her job or not, if she had a choice, or if she just automatically did what she was told to do. Such are the things we Americans have been taught in learning about what life is like in Russia: people do what they are told, or if they don't they might disappear. Is this Cold War propagandic scare tactic thinking, or reality? How can we know? Certainly the situation here seemed set up to intimidate and control. But in this room, at this moment, after a seemingly interminable time she stamped something and handed my passport back through the little window. Almost breathing again, I said "Spaseeba," thank you, and quickly left. What a nerve-wracking experience, and yet it might have only been that as conjured in my mind.
As our bus drove along through Russia now, the rain that had been half-hearted in Finland became much more serious. It poured all the way to St. Petersburg and even then there were no signs of its letting up. We did alight from the bus in St. Petersburg, but even with raingear and a few umbrellas, touring the city by foot was less than pleasant. Most of us were at least halfly soaked through. My cold hands didn't dry until we were back in the bus with the heater running on high. What a less than glorious entrance and welcome to Russia! But we are here; we've made it through! Adventures await. I hope I sleep better tonight.
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