Monday, August 27, 2007

Cruising the Greek Islands

Just got back from a magical week of cruising the Cyclades, a spectacular group of islands a few hours southeast of Athens. Our crew was a tight group of b-school friends who have regularly sailed together over the last five years. It was a trip of spectacular sights, great sailing, wild partying, amazing destinations, and the occasional wonderful surprise (Congratulations to Will & Jen on their engagement!!)

Our trip began in Paros, where an advance crew of Cam, Will, Nic & Jen attempted to pick up the boat and sail it to Mykonos to meet up with James & Dennis. Unfortunately, we failed to adequately plan for Greek efficiency, which makes Mexico look positively industrious, and Cam fumed as our promised 10am pickup time stretched to 6pm and beyond... Thankfully our first tastes of the excellent Greek cuisine kept us from exploding. Undeterred, Nic & Cam jumped on a ferry to Mykonos to sample its legendary nightlife, leaving Will & Jen to their own devices (which are pretty efficient, considering they were engaged upon our return!).

Our first night in Mykonos introduced us to a mix of overtanned Greeks & Italians, obnoxious and entertaining Aussies, backpacking 15-year-olds running amok, and a host of other stereotypes. As you can imagine, our motley crew fit in just fine!!

The next morning we staggered out of our hotel to catch an early ferry back to Paros, assisted by Dennis' gentle encouragement & vocal talents. After realizing Will & Jen's new status mid-sailing briefing, we set sail for Schinoussa, a small island south of Naxos. The initial seas were a little feisty, causing some to wish they'd taken the sea-sickness pills, but that evening found us in a gorgeous secluded bay, with nothing to disturb the splendid isolation except Will's yelp as he trod on a sea-urchin, and our swearing as our outboard engine failed. A huge repas of lobster pasta, fresh fish, and more Tatziki & Taramasalata than we could jump over made the initial trials and tribulations of our journey fade away.

The next morning we sailed south for Santorini (Thira), and the splendour of arriving in Santorini's volcano caldera under sail is an experience I will never forget. We were fortunate to tie up directly to the quay underneath the main town of Fira, where we stayed for the next couple of days, hiking, eating, partying, admiring the sunsets, and just drinking in the splendour of Santorini. Will & Jen left Dennis, James, Nic & I to enjoy some time alone, and apart from James sending his blackberry and camera for a swim, and more encounters with Donkey crap than we care to recall, we passed the time very pleasantly. When it came time to leave, we inadvertently took a souvenir- a large rock came up with our anchor, requiring some gymnastics and effort to dislodge it!

On our fifth day, we sailed from Santorini to Ios, where we again managed to luck out with an ideal mooring, with a position right on the quay. We rented a car and careened around the island, skillfully ending up in a swimming pool bar on the beach at sunset. The night was spent in the debaucherous back alleys of Ios, where we tried to remember whether we'd acted like that when we were 16 (and generally agreed), since that seemed to be the average age of the rest of the crowd.

The following morning, high winds in our protected bay, and reports of an impending meltemi (a strong seasonal northerly wind) led to desertions, with Will & Jen claiming they needed more "couple" time on the beach, leaving the four of us to brave the high seas. Under jib alone in 35+ knots of wind, we slogged our way upwind to Naxos, which despite the challenges was a fun sail, and contained one of my highlights of the trip as a pod of nine dolphins surfed, jumped and played around the boat for part of our journey.
That night we spent under a blanket of stars in some of the clearest water I've ever seen in a secluded bay in the south of Naxos. The four boys proved we could indeed feed & water ourselves, and we had the ever-present meltemi (heated to steel-melting temperatures from its journey over Naxos) to keep us company.
Our final day of sailing found us working northwards along Naxos to pick up Will (and some all-important gyros) in Naxos town and make the crossing to Paros, through the washing machine seas, spurred on by DJ Cam's Moscow club music mixes. Overnight the meltemi strenthened, causing all sorts of carnage for yachts to windward of our marina, making us thankful we'd reached the safety of our mooring the night before.

Exhausted, sunburnt and happy, we disembarked our boat (and its myriad technical failures- but really- who needs a working fuel & water gauge, outboard motor, or wind/speed/depth readings anyhow?) and boarded the Ferry back to Athens. Unbeknownst to us, Athens was in the grip of serious bushfires, and dozens of people had been killed. Athens was covered in a thick pall of smoke and ash was falling from the sky. While this put a slight damper on our final day, we headed for a delicious modern greek meal at a trendy local restaurant, and then Jimbo & I met some friends and partied the night away before crawling back to Moscow late Sunday night.
A wonderful trip with wonderful friends. The photos are here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Raining Crocodiles?

Another strange animal story that I'm at a loss to explain...

Crocodile drops on nuclear city street (AFP, 8 August)

A pet crocodile fell from a 12th storey apartment window onto the pavement below in the Russian town of Sarov, Nizhny Novgorod province, birthplace of the Soviet Union's first nuclear weapons and home to the Russian Federal Nuclear Centre. The one-metre caiman crocodile, although stunned, was unharmed except for losing a tooth. The crocodile has been kept at the apartment for the past 15 years. Neighbours said it was the third time that the crocodile, reportedly named Khenar, had tried to escape out of the window. Emergency services and rescuers managed to lasso the animal and take it to a local aquarium. Its owner, who was not at home at the time, later came to collect him. The crocodile was last seen lying on the back seat of his owner's car.

You've been in Russia too long when...

An oldie (and very long), but this was too good not to include for those of you who appreciate Russia's eccentricities. For those of you who don't live here, an insight to come of the cultural idiosyncrasies that make Russia such an interesting (and wonderful) place to live...

  • When pulled over by a policeman, you pretend not to speak Russian and say Ya ne ponedelnik instead of Ya ne ponimayu on purpose.

  • in winter, you choose your route by determining which icicles are least likely to impale you in the head.

  • you let the telephone ring at least 4 times before you pick it up because it is probably a misconnection or electrical fault.

  • you know more than 60 Olgas.

  • you argue with a taxi driver about a fare of 30 rubles ($2) to go 2 kilometres in a blizzard.

  • you look at people's shoes to determine where they are from.

  • you are envious because your expatriate friend has smaller door keys than you do.

  • you're not sure what to do when the GAI (traffic cop) only asks you to pay the official fine.

  • When the word 'salad' ceases for you to have anything to do with lettuce.

  • you answer the phone by saying 'allo, allo, allo' before giving the caller a chance to respond.

  • when crossing the street, you sprint.

  • you are thrown off guard when the doorman at the nightclub is happy to see you.

  • you plan your vacation around those times of the year when the hot water is turned off.

  • you start thinking of black bread as a good chaser for vodka.

  • Cigarette smoke becomes 'tolerable'.

  • you think metal doors are a necessity.

  • you catch yourself whistling indoors and feel guilty.

  • you never smile in public when you're alone.

  • you know the official at the metro station/airport/border post/post office/railway station etc. etc. is going to say nyet, but you argue anyway.

  • you can spark a debate by asking for a decent Mexican restaurant.

  • you do all your shopping at kiosks.

  • you voluntarily take a stroll in the park, Baltika beer in hand, on a sub-zero day.

  • you are impressed with the new model Lada or Volga car.

  • you hear the radio say it is zero degrees outside and you think it is a nice day for a change.

  • you win a shoving match with an old babushka for a place in line and you are proud of it.

  • you are pleasantly surprised when there is toilet paper in the WC at work.

  • you see a car behind you with flashing lights and think it's some politician.

  • you are pleasantly surprised when there is real wine in the bottle of Georgian Kinzamaruli you bought in a kiosk.

  • A weekend anywhere in the Baltics qualifies as a trip to the West.

  • your day seems brighter after seeing that goon's Mercedes broadsides by a pensioner's Moskvich.

  • you say he/she is 'on the meeting' (instead of 'at the' or 'in a' meeting).

  • you wonder what the tax inspector really wants when she says everything is in order.

  • you give a 10% tip only if the waiter has been really exceptional.

  • you are relieved when the guy standing next to you on the bus actually uses a handkerchief.

  • you ask for no ice in your drink.

  • you go mushroom and berry picking out of necessity instead of recreation.

  • you develop a liking for beetroot.

  • you know what Dostoyevsky's favourite colour was.

  • you start to believe that you're a character in a Tolstoi novel.

  • you know seven people whose favorite novel is 'The Master and Margarita'.

  • you change into tapki (slippers) and wash your hands as soon as you walk into your apartment.

  • you take a trip to Budapest and think you've been to heaven.

  • you can read barcodes, and you start shopping for products by their country of production.

  • you begin to refer to locals as nashi (ours).

  • It doesn't seem strange to pay the GAI $2.25 for crossing the double line while making an illegal U-turn, and $35 for a microwaved dish of frozen vegetables at a crappy restaurant.

  • your coffee cups habitually smell of vodka.

  • you give your business card to social acquaintances.

  • you wear a wool hat in the sauna.

  • you put the empty bottle of wine on the floor in a restaurant.

  • you are rude to people at the airport for no reason.

  • you have to check your passport for an arrival-in-Russia date.

  • Remont (repair), pivo (beer) and nalivai (pour!) become integral parts of your vocabulary.

  • you've been to Tallinn at least a dozen times for visas.

  • you are curious as to when they might start exporting Baltika beer to your home country.

  • you changed apartments 6 times in 6 months.

  • you no longer feel like going to your 'home' country.

  • you speak to other expats in your native language, but forget a few of the simplest words and throw in some Russian ones.

  • you no longer miss the foods you grew up with, and pass them up at foreign-owned supermarkets.

  • you actually enjoy shopping at the rynok (market), and you think that Ramstore is the most advanced supermarket you've ever been to.

  • you think that the Manezh is a real shopping mall.

  • you try to pay a traffic fine on the spot and get arrested for attempted bribery.

  • you look for kvas and kefir in the supermarket, and ask to buy half a head of cabbage.

  • you don't feel guilty about not paying on the trolleybus.

  • you can sleep through a hangover without curtains on your windows.

  • The elevator aroma seems reassuring somehow.

  • you can heat water on the stove and shower with it in less than 10 minutes.

  • your sister writes to you about the best prime rib she's ever had and you can't remember what it looks or tastes like.

  • The sellers at the rynok start calling you by your patronymic only.

  • you have had your clothes ruined by all the so-called Western style dry cleaners and have to start the cycle over again.

  • you know the Moscow Metro better than you know the subway system back home.

  • you start buying Russian toilet paper.

  • you sit in silence with your eyes shut for a few moments before leaving on any long journey.

  • you look in the mirror to turn away bad luck if you have to return home to pick up something you've forgotten.

  • you go to England and notice how frosty, unemotional, unsentimental and cold the Brits are and long to return to the warm rush of the Russian dusha (soul).

  • When that strange pungent mix of odours of stale sawdust, sweat and grime in the metro makes you feel safe and at home

  • you are in awe that after 3 days home your shoes are still clean.

  • you get wildly offended when you are asked to pay at the coatcheck.

  • you are afraid of offending someone by asking him or her what they do for a living.

  • (For women) When you dress up in your best outfits for work and ride the metro.

  • When mayonnaise becomes your dressing of choice.

  • you can recite in Russian all the words to all of tampon and chewing gum commercials.

  • When you begin paying attention to peoples' floors and can distinguish the quality of linoleum and/or parquet, and thus determine social status, taste, and income e.g. embezzled, earned, pension, unpaid, etc.)

  • you get excited when the dentist smiles and has all his own teeth.

  • you pretend not to speak Russian when you walk in to a restaurant and ask to use their loo without buying anything.

  • When a streetcab tries to over-charge you, you turn the incident in to an example of how Russia is loosing its dignity in the eyes of the world.

  • you are no longer surprised when your taxi driver tells you that before Perestroika he worked as a rocket scientist.

  • you laugh at Russian jokes.

  • you actually get these jokes.

  • you actually spend time writing these jokes!

  • you feel queasy when someone tries to shake your hand over a threshold.

  • you continue to 'cross' the number 7 back at home.

  • you specify 'no gas' when asking for mineral water.

  • you are dumbstruck back at home when high school or college students wait on you with a smile, reciting a 90 second spiel on the 'specials of the day' and display complete knowledge of the contents of each menu item...

  • you realize that all the above and the other messages on this subject posted here are what you love about Russia, that you've been here long enough to feel at home and wonder whether you'll ever able to fit back in the old country

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Exiled to the Siberian Salt Mines

Just when I thought it was safe to write in post-Soviet Russia, I managed to displease a higher power, and last week found myself sent to Siberia to investigate a salt mine.

No, I'm not kidding.

So a group of us took a LONG journey from Moscow to find ourselves in a bastion of 1970's-era fashion, food, nightlife, and more importantly- safety equipment.

After a fitful night at the best hotel in town, we met to plunge 400m underground to the depths of a mine, equipped with the USSR's finest CO2 rebreathers ("for those occasional times we need them").

We were picked up by a jeep, and following about a 5km trip through a labyrinthine set of tunnels, the occasional wrong turn, and some enlightened discussions about how salt mines are sometimes prone to flooding, we arrived at the mine face. Taking a few quick photos, & commenting on the lack or air filters, we were informed about how the air in the mine is actually good for those who work there and had been known to cure asthma. Comforted in this knowledge and with a potential new use for the mine as a retro health spa, we headed back to the surface, and back to civilisation...

Photos are here.