…gang aft agley
I suppose it would be a bit presumptuous of me to claim Steinbeck’s famous proverb applies to me. That would be to claim that I even had laid some plans in the first place! I suppose a more appropriate tag for my travel experiences would be the almost trite, serendipity. Actually, on third thought, it would best be characterized as providential.
Well, that’s how I see it as I update today’s blog entry. I’m sitting in Jim Hutchinson’s office as I write this, refreshed from a whopping 6 hours of sleep that more than doubles the rest I’d received in the previous two days. Who is Jim Hutchinson? He’s a missionary living here in Moscow with his wife and three young daughters. I originally got in touch with Jim several weeks ago via e-mail as I began to “plan” my trip here to Russia. I wanted to find a church to attend when I would be in Moscow. Jim offered to give me some touring advice when I got here, so I gave him a call the day before I left the states. He must have assessed that I’d be instantly lost in the confusion that is Moscow, so he generously offered to meet me at the airport and make sure that I found my way to my hostel. So after what was a rather pleasant flight and smooth sailing through customs, I met Jim in the airport where he was waiting with my train tickets and a metro pass.
Indeed, I would have been rather lost, as nothing in Russia is identified in English. In fact, it seemed that many places weren’t even identified in Russian. Not that it would help me much if they were. I gave myself a quick crash course on the Russian Cyrillic alphabet during the last hour of my flight, but while that enabled me to sound out words at a snails pace, it didn’t help me understand what the word means. So this is why it was a rather welcome relief to be greeted with a friendly, English AND Russian-speaking American to help me find my way to Kитай Гopoд.
But really I’m getting way ahead of myself. I last left you on the runway at Dulles International, and much has happened since then. First, my flight experience happily has nothing to report other than that I enjoyed the luxury of a neighborless window seat in the roomy economy plus section of the plane. I was able to spread out a bit and get some intermittent rest. I also spent a little time reading through my Lonely Planet guide to Moscow, realizing that I knew almost exactly nothing about where I was going. I didn’t even know that a river runs through the city, never mind the names of any of the neighborhoods. I also took about an hour and studied the Cyrillic alphabet and doubled my vocabulary to include the Russian words for not only “good-bye” but also “you’re welcome.” Somehow, I figured that those two words might go well together. I gave up trying to learn how to say a simple hello, which requires verbal articulations far beyond my capabilities. Written phonetically in English, it would be zdra-vstvoo-eet-yuh. Sorry, but “hello” is much easier!
When we dipped below the clouds on our approach to Moscow, I grabbed my first glimpse of Russia. It was as grey and cheerless as I’d always hoped. Of course, this is the nether-season of early spring when the snows have turned to mud and the flora remains lifeless. On our final approach, I did appreciate the closer view of impressive forests of tall birches with their pale trunks and reddish limbs.
One of my primary reasons for coming to Russia was to experience the adventure of visiting a country without the full polish of a typical first-world country. Russia is not exactly third-world, but not exactly first world either. Normally, the remaining category would be called “emerging economy,” but I don’t think this applies either. I think it deserves it’s own category: Russian.
Well, I didn’t have to wait very long to find an example of what I was anticipating. After we touched down and began to taxi towards the terminal, I saw a rather large airplane graveyard just off the runway in the grassy meadow. I think several of the planes were still in service, but they didn’t seem to use any hangars. It looked like the airport collided with a redneck’s front yard.
Going through customs was thankfully quick and easy. With only carry-ons I skipped baggage claim and pushed my way through a wall of people just past customs waiting to meet passengers. Jim found me and we made our way to the train that took us the 30 kilometers into downtown Moscow. He had already purchased my trian ticket and gave me a metro pass good for 20 rides. We took the metro to the Kitay Gorod station and then navigated our way to my hostel. The hostel was up four flights of filthy stairs. I checked in and started the important process of registering my visa. Russia is a country still tethered by intense paperwork. You must carry your passport, visa, customs declaration, and visa registration with you at all times. At any moment a police officer could stop you and demand to inspect your papers. Ah, this is exactly the sort of thing I came to Russia for!
I dropped my duffle bag off in my room and we made our way back to his apartment. The apartment was more spacious than I expected and it was pleasantly situated next to a large children’s park. I spent most of the afternoon chatting, but did get in a quick nap before dinner. Later that evening we were joined by a half-dozen or so people for an English Bible study. The plan was for me to head back to the hostel after the Bible study, but things ended up getting pretty late and Jim offered for me to just stay at their house. He had also noticed that my room at the hostel appeared to be co-ed. So then we planned to go back to the hostel to fetch my bag and with its change of clothes. But then we realized it was past midnight, so I decided to just tough it out for one more night in the clothes I had on. I finally crawled into bed at 2 AM, relishing the bliss of fully-horizontal sleep for the first time in far too many hours.