Friday, 30 May 2014

Russian Bus Trip

       We use words like "learning experience" or "it was up to local standards" to usually defend an entitled position or belief. I've done it and I am not ashamed to admit it. The sense of entitlement is only wrong if you haven't earned it, or don't deserve it. Part of this deserving is the intelligence and understanding that most of the world doesn't share the idea that by virtue of being born in a privileged society one automatically is entitled to the standards that come with it while abroad.

We see this perhaps best when booking travel. In Africa, I was offered First and Business class when booking rail or flight tickets. The person didn't offer me any of the three levels of coach, nor the lowest class that is on the top of the rail cars themselves. In Africa, the system of judging where someone belongs is much more obvious and simple for travelers of the western world.
    This is not the case in Russia. We encountered some difficulties with the amount of luggage we had in our possession and how to get it all from Moscow to the resort city of Anapa, located on the Black Sea. Flying was out of the question as we had already encountered overweight issues flying in Canada. Anapa, being a tourist area, usually means people flying there for a couple of weeks take one twenty kilogram bags. Rail was our next choice.

      We checked into various rail options and again ran into issues of weight and volume. Depending on the type of train, and where you're going dictates the type of classes and cabins available to you. On this trip, we had first, with two people sharing a cabin usually occupied by four or six, or second and buying out all of the four positions. While expensive by Russian standards a relative bargain compared to Canada where freight is given priority over people. The difficulty was getting the luggage on the train as people are on the lookout for people pulling too much. So with another roadblock we explored other options.

     Bus was the easy answer. This bus transportation is very luggage friendly as people in the smaller towns go to the Moscow market to buy wholesale goods and then pack it all home to sort, tag, and sell in their little shops. An entire industry has developed around this practice. Entrepreneurs travel from their hometown to buy goods imported from Korea and China. They spend the day bargaining and getting their goods wrapped and ready for transport. When done skinny porters with incredible strength bring all their stuff to the bus. The purchases get loaded and then tired from the days transactions these Entrepreneurs crawl up to the second level, find a bunk, and sleep. This leaves the first level virtually unoccupied. I say virtually because there is a kitchen and it gets used to prepare food and coffee at different intervals during the twenty-five hour journey from Moscow to Anapa.

    So it is here I found myself, bags in tow, surrounded by the cacophony of Russian and Korean calls for porters to move faster, in a different direction, or stop entirely. The drive through Moscow had been as exciting as usual and from my Canadian time oriented perspective we were late. I watched as our luggage was buried and tried to calm my rising sense of doom. The bus was not a sleek euro cruiser like I had seen on searches I'd made looking for "Russian busses" It was old and of a manufacturer I'd never heard of before. The driver's seat did have a Mercedes seat cover and I tried to take comfort in this, thinking perhaps it had come with a new engine job. I failed to convince myself on any level that this was true, lowered my head and sense of entitlement, thinking "Once more into the breech."

    My wife Inga and her sister decided it was time to leave me, most likely sensing my mood. So I stowed my bag and settled in a seat sure that I would die here in a fiery crash or killed and looted by the various characters moving in and around the bus. One of these characters was barking orders ferociously. Now small disagreements in Russian do sound, to a westerner, quite serious. This was more than that. He was a large man with military demeanors and a drill sergeant voice I thought I was long immune to. I physically jumped as directions launched from his mouth like Russian mortars. Over the back of the co-pilot seat was a safety jacket with some Russian Cyrillic on it so desperately needing a distraction I brought out my phone. I have an AP that is supposed to translate from pictures taken on the camera, it had yet to work at all but I needed to keep busy to avoid grabbing my towel and running in panic. It worked!  The one time it actually worked is the one time I wished it hadn't. The safety jacket said, "Tank Driver."

    Seeping deeper into doom, I was joined in the kitchen area by an older lady. In Russia, these ladies are called Babushka and can be very unpredictable.  In North America Older ladies may wear purple, here they can give you purple bruises. So I quietly sat there trying to disappear and hoping if I didn't obfuscate that the girls would return. The Babushka started talking, not to me directly but in that way people do to fill uncomfortable silences and encourage the other person to join in. Lacking the skills verbally, I chose instead to sing quietly to myself in English. It worked, she understood I was a visitor and sensed I was as uncomfortable as she was. She set on a new task with renewed vigor and while I sensed this has something to do with me I had no idea what.

    She joined me at the table with several small plastic containers and a bag filled with different types of bread and started making sandwiches. She finished two, took a bite smiled and handed me the other. I accepted it and noticed it was bacon and tomato! Thick pieces of smoke cured uncooked bacon with slices of fresh organic tomato. It was incredible. I said "thank you" in Russian and followed with, "I can't speak Russian." She replied simply by saying "Me neither." She continued to cut and arrange different delicacies on the table between us and then got up to make coffee. When her coffee was ready she simply pointed to another cup. I shook my head and said "Yes Please." She put milk and sugar into her cup and then looked at me with a questioning look. I said "No" and the questioning look was replaced by confusion.

     Russians almost always put sugar in their coffee so this yes I'll have coffee then no confused her, as no one would drink coffee without sugar.  But after a little bit of sign language and gestures we worked it out, once again settling down to cut veggies, fruit, bread, cheese, and bacon.
 Inga and her sister arrived back to find me lounging and eating and feeling if not comfortable then accepted into this new environment.  They too had bought food, drinks, and snacks for the journey and quickly set to sharing. We were joined by an older man that could have played many different roles if cast into a movie, all of them villains.
     He was a shorter man with tiny, powerful hands that bore the scars of a life spent using them. He had sharp facial features wrapped in well tanned skin that had lost its elasticity years ago, and now could be compared to the wings of a bat. But his eyes were what you'd notice first. Piercing eyes are easy if they happen to be green or icy blue. This man's were muddy brown, tinged with red and tore to the core of what they looked at. They didn't so much dart to things as they moved, they just changed focus like a fast sport's photography lens.

     I stood up to make room and those eyes catalogued me just that fast. Displaying the shortest of pauses at things he noticed; tattoo, clip from a knife, scars. All accessed and weighed as he raised his hand gesturing no and smiled a mouth full of gold.

    I sat back down beside what I was understanding to be his wife and he dug a bottle of Russian Standard vodka out of an old seaman's shoulder bag. Finding plastic glasses, he poured a round and raised his glass. Instead of trying to make a whole toast in English, he only said.  "New, Journey, Welcome to Russia." We all touched glasses around the tight little table, I lowered mine below the rim of his, a sign of respect in Russia, and was rewarded with a larger gold smile and even more appraising look.


  1. I loved the "Tank Driver" jacket. I too added an application to my Smartphone that will translate signs. Will help in Germany but not so much in Czech Republic.Thanks.