The Drunkard's Walk, part 2: Rabbit Hole
Trip Start Jun 10, 2008
16Trip End Ongoing
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In spite of the discouragement produced by checking the official Russian visa regulations, one can be quite easy to obtain (at least in Helsinki) by applying through a so-called travel agency, that in fact does little more than taking your papers to the Russian embassy just across the street from them and charging you a little extra for that. They must have some above-or-under ground connections, but the important thing is that it works, or that it worked, so that very early on a Friday morning I boarded a train to Sankt-Peterburg.
Before leaving Finland, I had seen a post on the Couch Surfing site from a girl asking that someone going from Helsinki to St. Pete would bring her some clothes her friend had ordered through the internet and had had delivered to her brother's house in Helsinki. I accepted it, met the guy to get the bag of clothes and then started having some doubts. Isn't that a bit suspicious, to ask someone to take a bag to you from across the border? It didn't help, of course, that another guy who I found out was doing the trip on the same day as me had seen the request and considered it too suspicious. Nor that other people also went like 'You should never take anything for anybody else across any border' on me. But wait, isn't that a little too paranoid? I don't like these overgrown security measures that include a rule about never trusting anybody to protect against unlikely risks. Like in airports, for example, when they keep announcing their intent to blow up luggage left unattended. Is that really necessary? I've never heard of them blowing up anything other than someone's dirty clothes. Maybe people should spend a little more time being nice to their neighbours and a little less researching and building impenetrable walls. It was just a small bag of clothes after all, I did look a bit into it, found nothing to be suspicious of and decided it was far more likely that the request could be taken at face value, so I did.
It wasn't even checked at the border, I got to Sankt-Peterburg without trouble, gave the bag to the girl and thought 'Ok, where to now?' I hadn't done much research about the city before coming, so I just asked the girl for the center's general direction and walked that way, until I found a place to spend the night. A strange place it was, around a strange corner in a dark building after a long way up a narrow staircase, but it worked without problems. The lady there of course couldn't speak any English, so we had to communicate through a phrasebook, pinting to each other what we wanted to say. Then I sent a message to Anna, my friend in Moskva who was my last guest before I left Rio and who would host me there. We were supposed to meet at night in Sankt-Peterburg and go together by train on the following night. Then I spent the day walking around randomly in the city. Beautiful, but a little bizarre too, with its very crowded areas interspaced by sudden huge empty squares.
At night, not having received any answer from Anna, I decided to call her, only to find out my Finnish phone did not work at all in Russia, it had just pretended to send the message earlier. So I went out looking for a public phone, but they only work with cards and it turned out to be easier (and maybe cheaper too) to get a cell phone card than a public phone one, so I did. Then I called her again and got in response a message in Russian... great. I asked the guy in the phone store to tell me what it meant, and he said 'this Anna person is not working'. I guessed that meant her phone was off... great. Then I went to an internet cafe and sent a message to her, saying that I was there, that I would try to go to Moskva the following night, as we had planned and giving her my number. I had no answer from her until next afternoon, so I decided I should buy my ticket and then try to contact her from Moskva. I mean try to buy my ticket, because of course I had heard about the impressively long lines on the train stations and the extreme difficulty of buying a ticket without speaking any Russian.
But I had to try, so I did. I had at least learned to read the cyrillic alphabet, so I could write and read some transparent words, maybe it would be enough to form a minimal semblance of understanding. Also it helps a lot on navigating around, for example, it was not hard to find out the right train station, considering that one is named 'Finljandskij' and the other 'Moskovskij'. The line was not that impressively long, but it did take an impressively long time to advance, especially considering each booth had some 15-minute intervals when it closed, plus a 1-hour interval that was hard to dodge when the lines were so slow. You could get to the line that was farthest from its 1-hour interval and still have it arrive before your turn. When my turn did arrive, I asked if the lady spoke English, just to be sure, got an obvious negative answer and wrote in a piece of paper the train I wished to get. She then wrote back an exorbitant price and I made a series of failed attempts to say it was too expensive for me. Based on the reports I had read, I now expected her to start shouting at me, send me away, or any other kind of nasty behaviour, but instead she nicely looked for someone in the lines who could speak English. At last a guy showed up who could speak barely enough for me to convey 'too expensive for me' in a combination of words and gestures. Then he and the lady found out another train in the same day that had an available place for one third the price. Yay! Russians aren't as grumpy as foreign people make them out to be. I spent a good part of the day on this, and the rest was very rainy, so I didn't explore the city much more. At night, half an hour before my train's departure, Anna called me saying she was in S-P. Oops, too late, and also too late for us to come together to Moskva, I'd had to wait a bit alone there. The night-long train ride was good, though - a huge wagon in a huge train, and the wagon was actually a huge dormitory, filled with almost nothing but bunk beds. Of course I culdn't find my place number among the sea of numbers and letters in my ticket, but someone noticed I was lost and took me to my place. From then it went smoothly to Moskva.
When I decided to buy my train ticket I hadn't heard yet from Anna, and thus needed to find a place to stay in the city. So I logged in to the CS site and looked up Moskva, noticing that there was a group they called 'accommodation always available'. Sounds good, I thought. It was a nun called Sister Ghalina who opened up the church couchsurfers and that was possible because the head of the church, father Sergei was, as they put it, a former hippie, former traveler, former hitch-hiker and thus sympathized with stranded travelers. So I asked her for accommodation, she said yes (looks like it is really always avalable) and then I noticed someone on the forums was proposing a gathering at another church they were building to give something back, helping them with some of the work, and this was exactly on the Sunday morning I would arrive.
What else to do? Of course I arrived in Moskva and took the metro straight to this church to give them a hand too. It was right after Otradnoe. In War and Peace, that's where a country estate of some people is located, now it is next to last metro station. After some hours of work, we had a late lunch break, where father Sergei came to us to speak about him and the church, and then we went to the rock club located still inside the church grounds, where they give young people from the neighbourhood the opportunity to come and play, and they played for us. After that I came out of the club and saw some people in medieval garb sword-fighting, and this guy was offering to teach whoever wanted to learn some skills. I volunteered, beginning only with the sword, but soon enough he brought me also a shield, padded armor and a helmet, and this is how I spent my first day in Moskva: carrying rocks around a church construction site, then on the same site listening to Russian hard rock and then learning to sword-fight. The instructor gave me his phone number in case I wanted to learn more some other day, asked where I was from, and upon learning I was Brazilian, summoned this guy called Alexandr who could speak perfect Portuguese (I thought he was Portuguese, actually) and wanted a chance to use it. I spent some time talking to him, and then headed to one of the CS helper guys to his housewarming party, where I would at last spend the night, since I couldn't come to the church very late.
The next day I managed to talk to Anna again and she was back, so we set up a time to meet at her place. I took the metro there and then had to wait a lot, for she was terribly late. But she arrived and it was great to meet her again. Then we had lunch, I recovered some sleep lost due to the party and we went to... another party. There I met another Brazilian guy, Fábio, who apparently knew me from the site. 'Ah, so you are the famous Henrique, who crossed Portugal on foot?' Haha, I didn't know people actually knew about that failed attempt - when I posted it in the forums the idea didn't seem to generate any interest at all. Funny thing is I also knew who he was from his posts, complaining about the required use of English language on the South American forums, but we had never talked, not even online.
On the third day I again spent a long time in the morning making up for lost sleep, then went out to register my visa. Anna was the one supposed to do that, as it must be done by your host or hotel, but she couldn't come early in the afternoon, I was getting worried, and I had heard about some agencies where you could do it yourself, so I noted their addresses and tried. In Russia, however, it is not always easy to find a place if you have its address, as buildings can be huge, taking even one whole block, and have innumerable doors, plus you can never know what is inside a door unless you try it, as usually there are no windows to peek in and the signs, when existant, are of course in Russian. After spending the afternoon on this, running around on the metro, I was still unable to find any of these agencies, so I gave up and returned home. Anna came just in time for us to go to the post office where she could do that for me, and then we went out to celebrate her birthday.
Fourth day - yes, sleep until late and then - finally! - some time to visit the city! I went straight to the Red Square, and was very positively impressed by it. St. Vasili's cathedral with it's wacky domes alone was more than enough to make the visit worth it. Then I occupied myself walking around a bit, letting myself be marvelled by the city, and then went back. This night Anna showed up home with a bunch of Finnish people come to see a football match (Finland-Russia), whom she had met in a bar and decided to bring home to meet the Brazilian guy who can speak Finnish (oops, false bait) and we had yet another party.
On the next day I found out that my flight out of Finland was earlier than I expected and that I should be heading back if I still wanted to keep a promise I had made to visit someone there, so I packed my stuff and again spent the better part of the day trying to buy a train ticket. The tickets to Helsinki were all sold out, thanks to the football match, so I had to settle for Tallinn instead. Just in time to go back home, pick up my backpack, say goodbye to Anna and return to the station. It was a long journey, made a bit shorter by talking to a Russian guy who shared the booth with me (no big-dorm wagons on this one, but 4-bed booths). At about 4 in the morning we reached the Estonian border, my passport was checked by three different guys, one of them asked me to show the contents of my backpack. I was in the top bunk bed, and when I opened the bag, a bottle of vodka Anna had given me fell on the policeman's head, causing a rather tense moment... for me. Luckily, the guy dodged the bottle, picked it up, gave it back to me, laughed and said 'Ok, forget it'. He was in a good mood, joking with my Russian booth-mates. Later I looked at my passport and saw the exit stamp's date, one day earlier than my visa expiration date. I had miscalculated the dates, and if I had stayed as long as I had planned, I would have had border problems...
In the end, most of my time in Russia was spend in Sankt-Peterburg, trying to track Anna down, or in Moskva, in around the city metro-rides (the metro is awesomely beautiful, though) and parties. I had a really great time, though, and in spite of Fábio claiming that Russian environment was a bit hostile - hard to communicate or to find your way around - I thought it was a nice breath of fresh air after Finland. I mean, I like Finland, but people's relations there are rather anti-septic. I first noticed it when I was walking around S-P and saw a couple kissing. Then it came to me that I had never seen people kissing in Finland... at all. Then after talking to Alexandr for a few minutes he asked for a hug when we parted. And when buying stuff for the housewarming party people decided to share the costs. Wait, people here kiss on the streets, hug strangers and share in parties? This is not hostile at all, it is a warmly welcoming place. Too bad I had to leave.