Friday, August 05, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 2 - June 28, 2011

Begin: Leesburg, Virginia (Landsdowne Resort)
Drive to: Washington, DC (Dulles)
Fly toward: Moscow, Russia

I woke up in the hotel, hastily got ready, and went downstairs to meet up with Herbert and Klaus.

Klaus was not there, so Herbert and I met at the hotel restaurant for a buffet breakfast.  He and I had a pleasant chat about family, hometowns, work, language, and travel plans.  The food was very good and the service was professional.  Afterwards we went outside and found Klaus ready for our planned walk.

Now, when they invited me for a "walk," I figured we were looking at a half-hour stroll around the hotel followed by a beer - or something of that nature.  I think my European friends meant something different.  We started walking toward the river - which was the Potomac River.  As we walked down the paved trail, golf carts zoomed past.  A stern man on one of the carts - some kind of official - scolded us and told us we were not allowed to be there.  It was only for golfers.  My German friend dubbed him "The Marshall."  We asked him where the walking trail was, and he pointed us in the right direction.  He must have felt a little sorry for us, so he invited us to hop in the golf cart for a ride to the trail.  The Marshall ordered Klaus to put on his shoes (which were actually flip-flops which he had doffed) before climbing on the back of the cart.  As we sped past the hotel's impeccably manicured garden, my new friends chatted amiably in German.

The Marshall dropped us off about a half mile from the hotel on a gravel path at the edge of the woods.  Klaus then ditched the flip-flops and walked barefooted along the gravel.

The view emerged from behind the trees - the winding majestic river with jutting rocks connecting it to the craggy shore.  We ambled up the boulders and made our way to the river.  The sun was beating down on us.  Klaus rolled up his jeans and waded into the river.  Both pulled off their shirts, though were very modest about putting them back on when other people were walking around.

We soaked up the rays and chatted.

After lazing around for a while, we headed toward the trail which was marked by paint marks on the trees.  It was a typical nature trail, shady and leafy, birds chattering happily away.  

We continued our chat, though sometimes we just silently marched along. It was an interesting trail, with some small bridges, and little streams to cross, and some fallen trees with pathways cut into them to allow travelers to pass.  We kept up a swift pace - often led by the barefoot Klaus - who continued to scorn shoes regardless of the terrain: gravel, grass, leaves, rocks, water, concrete, or blacktop.

The winding river was on our right, and the golf course was on our left.  At one point, deep in the woods, I began to wonder if this were such a wise idea.  These guys could have been friends who lured me into the woods to rob me.  I suppressed this irrational thought, and continued the hike.

We eventually emerged in the middle of a wealthy subdivision: three casually-dressed middle-aged guys, one toting a backpack, another without shoes - strolling awkwardly along the McMansions.  We were kind of lost, and asked a young guy for directions to the hotel.  He did not seem to understand what hotel we meant, and his advice did not seem right.  His counsel was at odds with the instincts of our shoeless German officer.  Herbert and I trusted Klaus's opinion, and were rewarded by finding ourselves once again on the edge of the golf course, and soon made visual contact with the hotel.  We even saw the Marshall, still manning the golfcart and surveying his domain.  We ducked behind some trees hoping not to get in trouble for once more walking along the golf trail.

Our two hour hike concluded with a hefty incline.  We rewarded our efforts with soft drinks by the pool.

The guys went back to their rooms to shower.  I had a SnapYap session with Grace and Leo.  I headed downstairs to hang out with the guys and had some coffee.  Klaus reclined comfortably, barefoot in the overstuffed chair in the lobby.  Herbert later joined us, as did a fellow refugee, a college student from New Orleans named Sarah - whose father is a Loyola law professor who is teaching in Vienna.  

We all rode the shuttle together back to the United terminal.  We said goodbye and exchanged contact info.  I went to the line, to be moved to another line, directed to still another, and then one more.  Time began to get short.  I asked for an agent.  He initially told me point blank that I would miss my flight.  I protested that I had arrived two hours early - and he pulled me out of line to get attention from another agent.  My passport would not work in the self-serve kiosk.  I had to find another agent in this seething mass of international travelers, a chaotic mob speaking every imaginable language: men in turbans, women in Islamic garb, Africans, Asians, with a few Americans here and there.  With my plane set to leave in an hour, I still had no ticket and had yet to go through security.  My checked bag had already been checked the day before, and was presumably going to go with me to Moscow.

To complicate matters, the agent informed me that I was not booked on this flight (even though my paperwork said that I was) - but rather had been booked on a different flight to Frankfort with a Lufthansa connection to Moscow.  I begin to get the sinking feeling that I was headed back to the Landsdowne for another night while my bag would be on a whirlwind tour of Europe.  However, the agent somehow ironed things out.  I now had a boarding pass and my plane was actually boarding right at that moment.  I ran through the airport, got to the TSA line, and hurriedly dumped my things into the gray plastic tray.  The TSA agent told me that I had not done things correctly.  I managed to get over this obstacle, hurried through the metal detector, and ran to my gate - which was actually a shuttle to get to the gate itself.

I finally made it to the gate, which was swamped by young people in identical t-shirts boarding the plane.  I could not believe that I was actually boarding.  I was one of the very last to board.  A lady put some kind of a probe in my carry-on, took a reading, and motioned me aboard.  I am in Economy class on the B767.  My carry-on does not fit under the seat in front of me - my shoes and jacket barely do.

The flight is scheduled for 10 hours.  I have my Palm in my pocket (with several Bible versions) as well as my Moleskine to journal into.  I have the list of readings that I need to prepare my sermon.  I also have a pen.  I can barely fit in the seat - the middle of the middle - squished between two other people.  My carry-on is in the overhead bin.  The plane is packed to the gills.  Nevertheless, I try not to complain.  It could be worse.  Also, think of the miracle of human flight.  Like the comedian said: "You're sitting in a chair in the sky!"  

I listen to the bilingual announcements, and the Russian seems to be spoken very fast.  The spoken Russian sounds like the way New Yorkers speak English.  

I have instructions from Dan which he had previously phoned in to me from Novosibirsk - as he arrived on time.  Since Dan will not be there to guide me through the process, he explained all the procedures that I will need to do upon arrival, beginning with Passport Control.  It's quite a lot to keep in mind - which explains why the original plan was that we travel together.  This is going to be an adventure - especially since I don't speak Russian, and also considering that I still don;t know for sure if I have a plane ticket from Moscow to Novosibirsk.

The take-off is inexplicably delayed, but we finally begin our taxi down the runway, only to be recalled back because of a "hydraulics problem."  Another mechanical delay!  Neptune is grinning somewhere.  While grounded, I was able to call Grace and Leo and ask them to send my dad a message (as I was unable to get a phone call to complete back at the terminal).  

We were informed that the problem was only an indicator.  They expected a technician to cut a wire, and we would be up in ten minutes.  When the announcement was repeated in Russian, a lot of the Russians on the plane were laughing.  Way more than ten minutes elapsed.  Then we were told that we could not leave until the paperwork was completed.  One of my neighbors, a young Russian woman named Elena, exclaimed: "Bureaucrats!  Why can't they do that later?"  

It turns out that Elena was on her third flight of the day.  She is also flying on S7 out of Moscow and has offered to help me out at Domodedova Airport.  Finally, we have been cleared to go, and now we are once again grounded due to lightning.  Perhaps Zeus is now conspiring with Neptune.  And so we wait some more.  People unbuckle themselves and walk around the plane, chat on cellphones, and lounge about.  

After a two hour delay, we finally get into the air.  My seatmate Elena has an interesting story.  She is 23-years old, will be celebrating her birthday in Russia with her parents, has been married to an American farmer for six months, and thus lives in the U.S.  She speaks very good English, and is a city girl adapting to rural life in a foreign country.  She and her husband met online, and met for the first time in person in Germany.  She has traveled internationally quite a bit, and speaks German.  She is headed to her childhood home of Astrakhan - her first visit since the wedding.  I told her I was headed to Novosibirsk, and she explained that she was born and grew up there, as her parents studied there.

We are both skeptical that our baggage will make it to Domodedova.  For all I know, my bag may already be in Frankfurt.  The long wait has made us hungry.  Once again, the bags of trail mix came to the rescue.  I'm able to share with my neighbors.

Elena was in a chatty mood, and happily spoke about Russia, Siberia, and cultural differences.  She spoke about the Russian language, and gave me tips for dealing with the airport.  She was very helpful and graciously fielded questions from me.

The plane has a small interactive map in the headrests in front of each passenger showing where we are, along with our airspeed, altitude, temperature outside, and estimated remaining time in the trip.  The flight is routed just off the coast of Greenland, over Iceland, near Britain, over Scandinavia, and from there to Russia.  It is a 10-hour flight that became a 12-hour flight due to the delays.

Sleeping was next to impossible.  I tossed and turned in my cramped quarters.  Also, the students onboard were noisy.  Eventually, we did get a decent meal: ravioli and cheese.  By the time the plane was over Iceland, it was becoming daylight again.  It was disorienting.  Sleep was a series of shallow and brief naps.  The map could be changed into a little TV screen with movies and TV shows - but my headphones did not work.  I just did my best to doze.  

Here are all of my pictures from Day Two.

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