Thursday, August 16, 2007

Uniquely Russian

For the day we went to the Russian prison, we had hired a bus to take us there. It wasn't too far away, somewhere in the area of Cruiser Aurora, but the coverage of the bus routes isn't really that great (as evidenced by my 35 minute walk to school each morning). But the bus didn't come, and after about an hour of waiting, we started taking gypsy cabs. There were about 20 of us. This in itself was hilarious (well, not at the time; I think we were tired of standing in the sun waiting). So 5 minutes pass; we get one car for 4 people. Another 5 minutes or so, and we get another car. Now there are still about 13 of us left (I know this because I remembered that it was not evenly divisible into car-loads). Eventually a hotel shuttle pulls up (for Pribaltiyskaya, incidentally), and what do you know, he decides to take the rest of us there in the little hotel van, which greatly amused us. Only in Russia!

I forgot to mention what actually prompted our final closing parties the night before the group's flight out. The flight was to leave at about 5:50 in the morning (ouch). But of course, one needs to be at the airport a while before that, let's say around 3 or 4 in the morning (big ouch). That in itself is really tough, but then there's another problem: about half the people on the flight live on Vasilievskiy Island...and the bridges over the Neva are still up at that there would actually be no good way to get to the airport! (Only in Russia). So what we ended up having to do was hire a bus to go to everyone and pick up their luggage, starting in the afternoon, and then all of us would actually meet at a cafe (on the mainland, of course) until it was time to go. Of course, in reality this bus driver too was horribly behind schedule, and so although we were to meet at 11:30, some people didn't make it until well after that. Unfortunately the purse of someone in our group was stolen, which really sucked (but they were not leaving on the flight, so that was one less problem).

Last year in Russia, as I already mentioned, started off with difficulty. One of the reasons for this was the less-than-great bathrooms in the dorms. Well, as one should know, it's foolish to say that there's nothing worse, because sure enough, we were in for a pleasant surprise on the cruise. We opened the bathroom (the foul smell of which was nothing short of incredible), to the left, the sink; the right, the toilet. Well, wait a minute, it seems they forgot the shower. Oh, no they didn't, it's hanging on the wall, attached to the sink, and the shower curtain is in the back by the toilet. That is to say, the entire bathroom was the shower. Efficient, but, well, yeah.

So anyway, I'm having a good time here in Murmansk, with my friend showing me around. It's nice to be in a hotel, with a normal functional bathroom for the first time in about 2 months. The shower at home ("home" being the apartment in St. Petersburg) has a very sketchy water heater which rattles and creaks and decides to stop working at random times; I'm always afraid the thing was going to randomly burst into flames at some point; the large burn mark on the front of it (like that of my outlet in the dorms last year) only increases my confidence. Anyway, when I arrived, my friend asked me if I'd flown here. Nope, I took the train (28 hours). She was in disbelief, and asked if I'd ridden купе (second class). Nope, плацкарт (third/lowest class). Further disbelief. It wasn't too bad, well, relatively speaking. The 30 hour bus ride to and from New Orleans was far worse; whereas I more or less lay down through most of the train ride. Of course, the beds were far too short, and so I would either have my feet hanging off the edge of the bed into the doorway, with people walking into them from time to time (I was on the top bunk), but there was little choice anyway since and there was no room to sit up in the top bunk. They don't have food on the trains, so I brought some things and made myself a sandwich from time to time. A day later, there I was. At the railway station there was no kind of pocket map so I was kind of flustered about what to do, and sort of ambled around outside for a minute, when someone asked me where I wanted to go, and taxied me to the hotel for 100 rubles (like $4). There were maps and guides and things in the hotel, so that was only a temporary problem. So the first day Katya and I walked around, with her showing me around, and of course there is the obligatory Lenin statue on Проспект Ленина ("Lenin street"), the city's main street, and a movie theater named "Родина" (motherland), and she was amused when I guessed these things. There are the obligatory Karl Marx and Komsomol'kaya streets as well. Katya's mother works at a city museum so yesterday we went there, where first Katya guided me around, and then as it was getting close to closing time, her mom gave me a whirlwind tour through some of the rest of it (though of course I understood slightly less at this speed). The city has a population just shy of 400 000, with a great view of the bay, and as it was an important city in WWII there are a lot of monuments, including a large soldier (30 meters or so) on a hill overlooking the bay, as well as various other monuments spread throughout the city. The climate here isn't very well liked, though. As it's above the Arctic Circle, in the summer it's always light (polar days), and in the winter practically always dark (polar nights), and the long summer days and the northern lights just don't make up for the polar nights.

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