Monday, June 23, 2008

Football Insanity

Following Russia's stunning 3-1 soccer victory in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 over the Netherlands, Moscow was gripped in a frenzy of spontaneous celebration.

I had never-before appreciated how soccer-mad this country really is.

Traffic in the centre was ground to a standstill as over 200,000 people flooded Tverskaya and throughout the city people hung out of cars with flags, women danced topless, and people seemed compelled to run at moving vehicles. It was absolute joyful mayhem.

Driving back into the city, I was unable to pass through a major intersection, since someone had parked two semitrailers in the middle and hundreds of people were dancing on and around them with flags. Even (especially?) the nightclub go-go dancers we're getting caught up in the excitement!

It was a wild night to be in and party in Moscow, I can only imagine what will happen on Thursday if they win the semifinals!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Moscow May Never Sleep, But Helsinki Never Wakes

or “One Night In Helsinki (Too Many)

Before I start this post, a preliminary apology to my Finnish friends (esp. Maria & Hanna), since Helsinki is actually a great place, despite what you’re about to read.

For the last few weeks I've been cooling my heels in Moscow, awaiting the processing of my new visa (all foreigners in Russia need to go overseas for a "visa run" every year).

Given the endless Soviet-era paperwork required and a couple of minor glitches (Job? What job?), our friendly neighbour, the Ukraine, refused to give me a visa. As a result, it was decided Helsinki would be the closest destination for me to pick up my visa.

As the appointed date of the end of my current visa approached, and no word of whether my invitation was actually in Helsinki, I grew increasingly agitated. Faced with a lack of alternatives, I flew to Helsinki on the last day of my old visa in the hope the Russian consulate would be ready the following morning.

On arrival, I was duly informed that it was a huge public holiday in Finland, and that the consulate could not possibly be open, despite what the website might say. Unable to confirm either way, I grew more concerned and began forced contemplation of a trip to the Finnish lake region.

My previous visits to Helsinki had revealed it to be a pleasant, pretty place, with some lovely sights and great history, but as Maria and I left our 11th establishment in a fruitless search for food, it was not proving to be a haven for gastronomy or wild nightlife. After a Finnish Tex-Mex meal while being tortured by the wails of a garage band of accountants-turned-rock stars (pictured), one of whom looked suspiciously like the stapler guy from Office Space, we escaped and tore through the deserted streets, avoiding rolling tumbleweeds, ending up in a bar drowning our sorrows until nightmares of the Russian consulate drove us home.

The following morning dawned grey and sullen, the leaden clouds threating death & destruction upon all (OK, maybe I’m being a little melodramatic, but given my mood, Maria’s apartment not having curtains, and the fact that it doesn’t get dark here, that’s how I saw it). I dragged myself off the coach and began my pilgrimage to the embassy.

For me to successfully avoid extended time in Finland, three unlikely and dependent outcomes all had to occur, the probability of which (as I strained to recall my high school math permutation theories) was pretty damn small:
1) The consulate had to be open on the quietest holiday of the Finnish year;
2) They had to have actually received my invitation, proof of the existence of which I had not received, along with the required confirmation number;
3) They had to be persuaded to instantaneously turn around my visa, almost unheard of at any diplomatic institution, let alone a post-Soviet one.

Things were not looking good.

The Russian embassy in Helsinki is a grandiose and imposing building, the hammer and sickle still carved on the facade, which did nothing to ease my apprehensions. By 8.15 a line had already formed out front, which at least indicated that the consulate would be open today.

Sure enough, at 9am the gates unlocked, and a swarm of Russians and their human shields, um, I mean children, descended from the trees and from behind the parked cars where they must have been hiding, ignored the line and stormed the gates, waving their children like screaming, multicoloured prayer offerings. I ticked off the first necessary event.

Once inside the woman behind the counter easily found my invitation and even agreed that it would not be reasonable to accurately list each visit I had made to Russia (a major feat in overcoming Russian beauracracy). I settled on the magic number of 42, and ticked off the second necessary event.

She asked me for my press accreditation (which awaited me in Moscow), listened skeptically to my story of banker-turned-literary luminary, and I took her through a tasteful collection of my photography on my iPhone. Upon hearing that I was supposed to collect the visa and return to Russia that day, she looked dubious and said she would have to speak to “the Diplomat”.

After more waiting on tenterhooks, I was informed that as I was not Finnish, I would have to wait two weeks for my visa, and there was nothing more that could be done. Faced with the dreaded prospect of another two weeks of tumbleweeds, Tex-Mex, and that truly awful band, I pleaded with her in my best Russian as to whether there was any additional paperwork or “expediting fees” that might assist. She informed me that being Russia, a call from the right person was probably the only solution, but since the consulate closed in 20 minutes, it wasn’t likely.

Having already called my visa sponsor, I begged him to hurry, and awaited the result.

Sure enough, shortly thereafter there was a flurry of activity, and 20 minutes later I burst into the drizzling Nordic summer, visa in hand, elated at the prospect of a rapid return home. 6 hours later, back in Moscow, it was hard to believe the whole process had taken only 24 hours.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dacha Delights

This weekend I partook of the quintessential Russian experience, the weekend at the family dacha. While I have been to dacha’s previously, they tended to be corporate or palatial residences owned by wealthy acquaintances. This was my first time at a truly family dacha in the middle of nowhere 75km from Moscow, complete with no running water.

This was no ordinary dacha experience either. Katya had invited me to spend the night with her Mum & Stepdad, so not only did I have to navigate the complex niceties of overwhelmingly generous Russian hospitality, it was combined with meeting a girl's parents for the first time- in Russian!

As we headed to the suburbs in her brand-new turbo Range Rover (don’t ask), Katya was unfazed by my abject fear at the prospect of being stuck deep in the forest with her parents.

We found them sampling the most technologically advanced banya in existence at a friend’s apartment, then armed with groceries, we headed for the woods. As we stopped en route at a fresh spring in a hidden glen to top up our water supplies, long-buried Siberian memories of mosquitoes the size of sparrows (my new favourite Russian word “Komari”) flooded back, as we defended our perimeter with swatches of birch leaves.

Upon arrival, we were presented with the cutest two-story wooden dacha, surrounded by forest, replete with matryoshka dolls and an outdoor bathroom (watch for wild pigs late at night, I was warned). As stepdad fired up the open fire to begin grilling shashlik, I tried to make myself as helpful as possible either stripping the burned-out shell of the banya for firewood, or preparing the various local delicacies on offer.

Shortly thereafter, we had a delicious meal of salmon and lamb shashlik, accompanied by quintessential Russian staples of local veggies, sparkling red sovetskoe champanskoe, kvas (fresh fermented black bread drink), and some great Aussie & Georgian wine. We made toast after toast, Ven told Russian anecdotes, and all made a huge effort to make me feel welcome, despite language issues. Katya’s Mum, who is a renkown yoga instructor, had also just returned from Nepal, and I did my best to understand her passion for her art and its philosophy, not entirely sure whether it was the Russian or the yoga terminology that was more confusing.

After sitting by the fire, finishing all our wine, solving life’s problems, and mounting an increasingly futile battle against the mosquitoes, we retreated for a night’s rest.

12 hours later (yes, it’s true- I can sleep occasionally!), we awoke and Sveta plied me with more traditional breakfast food than I could jump over. We lay in the sun for a while, then headed into the nearby Golden Ring town of Dmitrov, where we visited the 12th Century monastery and saw the local sights.

On the drive back to Moscow, I reflected that it was an unforgettable and truly Russian experience that I felt really fortunate to have been invited to and been a part of. I hope I made a good impression!

The photos are here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Summertime in Moscow

While summertime in Moscow brings many good things with it- warmer weather, summer verandas, outdoor bars, short skirts, etc, it also brings with it cold showers (see my enlightening post about this phenomenon last year).

Showers aside, Moscow in summer is a wonderful place. with just a modicum of effort, you can escape the city centre and head to riverside restaurants with pools, yacht clubs, dachas, or the city's many parks and outdoor eateries.

It's good to be home.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Thailand: Sun, Sand, Scorpions & Ice Bars?

After a night in transit reminding me of the delightful realities of travel, as I fitfully dozed, perched on a couple of chairs pushed together in BKK’s departure terminal, my various body parts intertwined with my luggage as I waiting for the check-in counters to open, I arrived in beautiful Koh Samui. On my first return to the island in ~13 years, I was curious to see how much yet how little had changed in that time. On first glance Koh Samui (or at least bustling Chaweng Beach) was still striving to rival Cancun in its tackiness (although it’s definitely not alone in this noble ambition even in Thailand, let alone the rest of the world). Latest count: Thai Ladyboys: 1, Mexicans: 0.

The forces of Gastronomy had definitely suffered some major defeats in the intervening years, as the lone outpost of McDonald’s had been reinforced by Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, and even Starbucks. And sadly, Koh Samui has now suffered the ultimate indignity of any destination that has outgrown its natural charm and appeal- someone has constructed an Ice Bar, complete with life-size Tuk-Tuk in ice. These bars should be restricted to anywhere legitimately cold enough to support them. Sweden? Tick. Russia? Absolutely. Sydney? No. Thailand? You have got to be kidding.

Thankfully, I was able to meet up with a few Swedish and Russian backpackers, and put away enough cheap vodka Redbull (the positive aspects of Chaweng) to get me through to the next morning. After a passionate night with my new friends, the bedbugs (no, not the backpackers- damn those 500 Baht bargain beach bungalows), and a delicious breakfast of Subway (OK, I cracked), the ferry delivered me to Koh Pha Ngan, home of the infamous Full Moon parties (not that I can remember much from the last one I was at).

My sister Luci, who teaches English in a village on the coast, had arranged far superior accommodations (bedbug-free), on Surnise (Hat Rin) beach, and we spent the day catching up (having not seen each other for almost two years), swimming, eating & drinking, and bouncing around Pha Ngan's beautiful beaches. That night, we partied it up with some Thai friends of Luci's.

The next morning we started the long trek back to Sawi (Luci's village), not assisted by our hangovers (damn those buckets of cheap vodka- where's the Russki Standart?). After several near-misses of myriad transport connections, the last of which required perching in a farmer's side-baskets, we made it to her tiny village.

Within the first ten minutes at her apartment, I'd already attempted to kill a large scorpion that had invaded her bathroom, saved the dog from a large cricket (or vice-versa), and fought several pitched battles with some cockroaches who looked like they snorted bugspray for breakfast. Exhausted, we found some dinner and collapsed.

The next morning, I had a newfound respect for Luci's life choices as I ladled cold water over myself (keeping an eye out for scorpions), then attended her class, watching her try to maintain order over about 40 12-yr-old's. Those nearest to me called themselves (or at least each other) monkey, buffalo, and dog, but my Thai didn't make much progress.

Wandering around Sawi was an experience, as everywhere I went people dropped everything to stare at what I was doing. Luci is the only white woman in their village, and she's treated like a princess wherever she goes. Thankfully she has quickly learned Thai. It was so nice to once again be in a place where local people's lives are not dependent on flogging crap to tourists. We rode along kilometres of white, undeveloped beaches, through quaint fishing villages, and found stunning views over the gulf.

That evening, I took the stifling overnight train to Bangkok (cue Trans-Siberian flashbacks, the horror...), where I spent my final evening catching up with a friend, and sampling Bangkok's nightlife before catching the morning flight home to Moscow, for a break (and some new visas), before hitting the road again!

The photos are here.