Perils of Polly: We've landed in Russia. 'OK. Now what?'

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

My heart beat quickly as I stepped out of the Rossiya Airlines plane and onto Russian soil in St. Petersburg. It was hard for me to believe I was really here. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when people dug bomb shelters in their back yards and my family stockpiled food in the basement just in case the Russians -- then Soviets -- invaded our country or dropped their nuclear bomb. Never would I have guessed that I'd be visiting Russia voluntarily.

The airport was small, and customs was a mere glance at our passport and visa. I guess we didn't look like the terrorists that had recently bombed a metro station in Moscow. Next, we surveyed the main terminal in search of a sign -- a sign that said "Sue and Polly." Transitions are always the hardest part of travel, and being picked up at the airports and train stations was a major concern. Sending our money via Internet was all a matter of trust. We'd actually paid $30 for this pickup.

We scanned. There were a few signs, but none with our names. Most of the people shuffling through the gate into the terminal seemed to belong there. Few were tourists. I bounced my backpack further onto my shoulders and glanced at Sue. "OK. Now what?"

She shrugged.

We saw a small booth in the corner that belonged to taxi drivers. A sign said, "We speak English." It turned out that they were lying. Or at least no one at that moment spoke English. When we started to try to communicate, they got excited, tried to understand, and through a ruckus of their own language, tried to get other

people to come over and help out. Finally, through hand signals and their tiny bit of English, we were able to convey that we were supposed to be picked up, but our person was not here. I produced a phone number. One of the men nodded and took out his phone. He dialed the number and handed it to me. Welcomed English responded. She was just late. She'd be there in 10 minutes. I got a description of the car so we could wait outside.

I thanked the man, who smiled and said, "100 rubles." It's amazing how everyone speaks English when it comes to money. One hundred rubles is about $3. My sister handed it to him. It was worth $3 to know we were going to be picked up. We took a deep breath of relief and headed outside.

Our driver took us on a 45-minute trip to our homestay, a room with two single beds on the second floor in a typical Soviet-style, 6-floor, dirty-bland-colored box apartment building. The HOFA organization guarantees that someone at each homestay speaks English, but in this case, it was the elderly woman's son, who works nights, and had just left for work. We communicated enough through our driver to determine when breakfast was, and how to get in and out of the house and apartment building, both of which were double bolted, locked, secured with chains, barbed wire, and weird men looking over their shoulder. Just kidding -- sort of.

Since it was only 8 p.m., we decided to take off on foot for the evening. After all, St. Petersburg is about the same latitude as Kenai, so I knew the sun, which was shining brightly at the time, would be up for a long time. The temperature was just right for me, also -- about 60 F.

That evening and the next two days we must have walked 50 miles, in and out of rain showers, visiting this and that church, and, of course, the Hermitage, which is like the Versailles of Russia. Everything was extravagant, ornate, and beautiful. The third day we decided to check out the train station so we would know where we were going, and if we could make it without a taxi, since my sister is so tight she squeaks.

We took our vouchers and our instructions, which said, in English, that we would have to exchange the voucher for a real train ticket. We walked and walked and walked, thinking, with our map, we should be getting closer. Finally, armed with our map, we stopped people for directions. One woman pointed to a metro (subway) station and conveyed that we needed to take it. It was too far to walk. My feet, now getting blisters, agreed with her.

We watched, and then joined the throng and hopped on an escalator that must have traveled 10 stories into the bowels of the earth. I breathed thankfulness I was not walking down (and then up) steps!

We popped out at the station we were told, and tried to orient. The railway station was fairly obvious. We joined a hundred people standing in line, and soon noticed that there were no people in the ticket booths. Sue glanced at her watch. "They must be on a lunch break," she said.

An hour passed, and finally a grumpy looking cashier showed up. We began to see other people's tickets and noticed they looked just like ours. As we got to the window, we were finally convinced we had real tickets. We began to ask, but the cashier disgustedly motioned us to go away. (Who knows what she said!) We laughed and bumped out through the lines. No one else was laughing.

It was an easy metro ride back, but once above ground, we were disoriented. Nothing was as it should have been on the map, so we didn't know which direction to walk. Following instinct, we finally began to recognized things. Our homestay building was a welcomed sight! We said good bye, grabbed our 25-pound packs, headed back out for the trek back to the metro station, and a short hour and a half later, we were sitting on our first Russian train. We successfully navigated St. Petersburg.

On to Moscow.

Keep watching for the next installment of Polly's perils.

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