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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Up the Moscow River without a paddle... Part 2

Imagine that you are sitting in a strange airport, with people who do not speak your language, with no money, and no way to contact anyone...

That is where I was at 3am on July 11th.

This is part 2 of my adventurous introduction to Russia.

... If your bags don't make it onto this flight... then KLM will be responsible for getting them back to you. Oh boy, that's funny... cause the KLM lady told me that British Airways would be responsible. There is some extreme foreshadowing at this point alluding to the outcome of my bag.

At this point... I really didn't care what happened to my luggage. I was just happy to be on my way to Moscow again. The British Airways flight was nice... but it ran late... I arrived about an hour beyond my scheduled arrival time.

It is now 9pm in Moscow when I arrive. I head to baggage claim, and surprise surprise, my bag does not come off the conveyer. I have traveled within the US and Canada probably 50 times in the last 3 years. I have never... not once had a bag lost. My first contact with a real Russian was the lady who spoke English in the bag claim office. She was yelling at the guy in front of me in Russian... so I was a little worried... but, she was pretty friendly to me. Helped me fill out the paperwork, fill out customs forms... all kinds papers and stamps. It was 10pm before I made my way past the customs people and into the part of the airport where you can meet people. I walked around for about 25 minutes or so, not seeing anyone... I decided to try and get some money off of my credit card. It wasn't going to happen.

At this point, a private taxi driver approached me and started muttering in Russian about needing a ride... I of course had no idea what he was saying, until one of them spoke English... Enter Vladim. The Taxi Driver. He asked how much the driver speaking Russian had quoted me... I said 16 dollars... he said 16, ok. Then I explained that I had no money and was trying to get money out of the ATM, when no money came a second time, I told him that my group was at Hotel Russia, and that he would get paid when I hooked up with them. He kindly responded... money is no problem!

I think I had was starting to have my first reservations of choosing Vladim when he pointed to the speedometer and said... 100 miles per hour!! It indeed was around 160km, which is 100mph... As we zoomed in and out of traffic... He was doubling as a tour guide... Cinema! He would yell and point as we raced past a movie theatre... New Church!! As we passed a beautiful cathedral that was still under construction... Makdonalds!! When we finally made it into the city a little more... Vladim was a great driver, but he was a little nuts. He passed in the emergency lane on the right, and would come right up on the driver in front of him flashing his lights and honking his horn. We arrived at Hotel Russia as He was pointed out... Moscow River!! St. Basil's!! Kremlin!!

At the hotel, Vladim waited outside while I went in search of my group. No one here spoke more then 3 words of English... The guy at the front desk could not figure out what I was trying to say to him, so he referred me to the information phone at the back of the lobby. When Vladim saw me walking away from the desk he bounded in excited... I called on the phone, and there was no American group that had any of the names I was giving them. I should have just called ahead. great. Vladim now was interested in money... we tried both ATMs in the lobby, then went to a money changer back by the bathrooms. When I asked for 40 dollars (My math: 16+16=some money for me to eat with), Vladim said... Why you ask for that me... Me, you here... 60 Dollars!! Say WHAT! Yo dude... we agreed on 16... He responded, 1km is 1 dollar! Which is pretty outrageous... but, remember... I thought I was getting a good deal... We stepped back to talk about this a little, and my bottom line was... I needed to get back to the airport, that is where people were looking for me, not at a hotel in the center of Moscow. He said, 75 dollars and I will take you back. So I tried to get 80 out... denied.

My head was spinning, Vladim was a little upset, I had no idea where my group was... I'm at Hotel Russia, in the center of one of the most beautiful city's on the planet... but everything is wrong. Quickly I recapped in my head. No money, no group, no bags, no phone, no contact number... what do I have of value? The only thing I had worth anything to another person was my CD player. I told Vladim, I have no money, but I do some things that are worth money. He said, what? This was the first ray of light, he was a bartering Russian. I pulled it out and said... this is worth about 60US, and I have headphones that are worth 30, that should be enough to get me back to the airport. As Vladim was examining the player, I was struggling to get the headphones free, they had gotten tangled. I was shaking because I was so stressed and could barley get them free. After what seemed like an eternity kneeling on the floor in the lobby of the Hotel, I freed the headphones and looked up at Vladim. He smiled, then as he pushed the player back to me, said... its ok, I take you back.

I said, you don't want the player... he waved me off and said, no money, no problem. As we departed from the hotel, I for the first time was feeling the fatigue of traveling so far with so little sleep. As I dozed, It was already passing midnight in Moscow.

We talked little on the way back, but once we got there... Vladim said... you, Russia, no good... I think in the morning, you should go home. I was determined not to leave. I did not have all this adventure just to run back to the fort, I was way out of my comfort zone, but God knew what he was doing.

It was past 1am when I got back to the airport, I profusely thanked Vladim, and finally assured him, I did not need help talking to the British Airways people to get me a ticket home... I bid him farewell and headed straight for the information desk. There was only one lady at the information desk who spoke any English at all, I had to wait 10 minutes while she was on the phone. I explained what my situation was, and she told me that no one had come looking for me. She tried calling Hotel Russia... no one was there. She gave me a paper with the number in case I wanted to try later. I tried to use the payphones to call home, maybe someone could help me from home... But alas... I could not raise an international operator... I tried like 8 times in a row. When I finally did get an English speaker... she told me... This is airport information, goodbye.

It was nearing 2am by now... and I had tried everything I could think of. I decided to go to my office and think. Thats right... I went in search of a comfortable toilet. Well... I found a toilet, but it was not comfortable, and it smelled badly. While I was there... I prayed. I pondered, and I prayed some more. And with ever increasing waves... I was feeling more and more tired. I walked around for a while after I left the office... scouting out a place I could sleep. This was what I was thinking... if someone had been here looking for me, they were probably asleep by now... so what was I doing still awake? I tried the information desk one more time... They then showed me a piece of paper that had a name and a number scribbled on it... Stacy, but they said that she was looking for her group too... I asked if she was American... No, she is Russian they said. Well... that was who I was looking for, but I did not know that... and they mixed up the story pretty badly... she was looking for me, and she was not a Russian, she was an American missionary, but I guess that is a testament to her Russian...

I found a spot that I could lay out on 3 chairs... next to a bum. He had a cart with some trashbags on it, had the funkiest socks I have ever seen a man wear, and had covered his head with newspaper. I can't say I slept well... I was trying to fall asleep in such a way that both my carry on bags were secure... but that didn't lend itself to very much comfort. But... I did sleep...



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