Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Siberian Adventure - Day 24 - July 20, 2011

Begin: Yekaterinburg
Fly to: Moscow (Domodedovo Airport)
Fly to: Washington (Dulles Airport)
Fly to: Kenner (Louis Armstrong Airport)
Drive to: Gretna

My alarm goes off at 4:30 am.  Dan is up and ready to shower.  I begin to pack my bags and close up my cot.  I am able to IM with Grace one last time.  We are very excited.  I am bleary-eyed.  The sky looks as bright as it did three hours ago when I went to sleep - not quite dark.  In a matter of minutes, the sky becomes blue.

I distribute my things between bags and pack clothing as best as I can to protect fragile items.  I pack my backpack inside my carry-on in case I can't have my carry-on with me under my seat.

Father Sergey arrives on time and drives us to Yekaterinburg's Koltsovo Airport.  The language barrier and time of day makes it a quiet ride.  Before we leave the car to walk to the terminal, Sergey gives me two CDs - the ones he had been playing in the car.  He gives the third disk - Dire Straits - to Dan.  He accompanies us to the terminal.  He joins us through the preliminary security search.  It was not aggressive, but I was frisked by a lady officer - something that (at least so far) is not done in the U.S.

We head to the check-in line and say goodbye to Sergey (who has to work at his full-time secular job today), and head off to security.  Again, the blue footies and the naked-scanner.  This time I see that there is a small locked room blocked off by frosted glass where the naked-scanner operator works.

We make it to our gate and a bus drives us to our plane.  It is an A320 - not large but not small either.  There are three seats on each side per row.  Dan and I are seated together.

The Ural Airlines staff is friendly, but they speak almost no English - but enough.  Our flight to Moscow is less than two hours.  They serve a hearty boxed breakfast - which is almost like every other meal in Russia: salad, hot dish (chicken and rice in my case), bread, butter, cheese, meats, a cookie, a small cup of tea, and even a little chocolate bar.  I save the bread, cheese, meats, and chocolate to bring back home to share.

Our flight was wonderful and comfortable.

We arrived at Domodedovo Airport, and it is very familiar thanks to my introduction by Elena.  What was formerly exotic and a bit intimidating had become comfortable.

There are a few new experiences, however.

We were selected for some kind of interview after checking our luggage.  Perhaps this was because of the crucifix around my neck.  We were asked what we had in our bags.  The young woman x-rays our bags, but strangely, there is no operator at the console to look at the images.  She then had us open our bags and rifles through all of our things, asking questions about whether or not we have "cultural" items.  What the hell does that mean?  The only reason I think I know what she might be after is because of the story I had heard of the LCMS pastor a couple years back who was detained at the airport because he had an antique crucifix that he had purchased.  He had bought it legally, but such things are not permitted to leave Russia.  The irony is that in the Soviet Union, such things were destroyed.  Now, taking them out of the country - even if you have purchased them legally - is not allowed.

The lady officer handles my books repeatedly and asks questions about "icons."  Since all of my icons are in my checked bag, and none of them are antiques, I answer "no" to all of her questions.  She wants to know what souvenirs I have.  I explain that I have refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, etc.

She is finally (though reluctantly) satisfied, and we hastily repack our things and leave.

We head to Passport Control.  This is in a section of the airport known as Passenger Control.  Dan and I go to different lines, as he has one of the new electronic passports with the chip.

There are two young women decked out like Panamanian generals in the booth.  One takes my passport and unceremoniously removes it from the plastic cover.  She looks at it, looks at me, yawns, and flips through it trying to look official.  I stand patiently.  She doesn't ask me any questions at all.  She gives me my passport back and turns on the green light for me to exit.

At security, we were again (for the second time, I believe) asked if we had packed our own bags.  We then head to the blue footies and the naked-scanner, assemble our stuff, and finally emerge into the airport proper.

As the airport has wifi, I was able to IM with Grace.  Dan and I have to hang out and wait for the United agent to show up.  Dan discovers the self-check-in kiosks and is ale to get his seat assignment and boarding pass.  Mine will not work for some reason.  I have to wait until 9:15 for the United personnel to arrive.

In line, we meet an elderly man who is a native Russian who has lived for more than 30 years in San Francisco.  He is a trained mathematician and was a designer of computer chips in Silicon Valley.  His wife is dying of cancer.  The details of his story are unclear.  He considers both Moscow and San Francisco to be his homes.  Like many scientists and mathematicians, he went to school in Novosibirsk.

The United agent is a young Russian woman who asks me if I packed my own bags.  She takes my passport to another clerk, and there seems to be some kind of discussion.  I wait.  I still have no seat assignment and no boarding pass.  She finally returns with my passport and sends me to the booth to check my bag.

The agent there asks me if I would like to upgrade to Economy Plus for $100.  I decline.  What seems to be happening is that the economy seats have been overbooked.  Nevertheless, I receive what appears to be a boarding pass, though without a seat assignment.

Lacking available airport seating, Dan and I take up a position near the elevator in the main part of the airport.  We have some time.  We take turns going to the bathroom - there are long lines.  I'm able to briefly IM with Grace again.

I'm reflecting on the airport security issue.  We went through the naked-scanner.  I'm wondering why we still have to remove our belts and shoes if they are able to look at the inside of our gonads.  I guess it keeps the blue-footie people at their jobs.  More likely it is the general principle of Soviet government (from which we in the United States are not exempt) according to one of our Russian friends: to humiliate and dominate the individual at every turn.  It's about control.

Anyway, I would like a coffee, so Dan and I take our carry-ons and go for a walk.  Ah!  A nice coffee shop whose Cyrillic letters spell out "Coffee Mania."  It's a mania all right!  A cappuccino is $13 U.S.  A simple cup of tea is even more!  There are vending machines in the airport, but we don't have any small bills.

We return to our gate to learn that our flight is delayed.  I get online and send a few e-mails and facebook "thank yous."  We learn that our plane has "mechanical problems."  Great.  We find a small airport magazine store that sells drinks.  A plastic bottle of Coke is only 47 rubles (a little more than a buck and a half).  Iced tea is 170 rubles.  Interestingly, Diet Coke (Coke Light in Russia) is twice as expensive as regular Coke.  It's made, I believe, with saccharine - and tastes terrible.  I buy us a couple drinks and pay with Visa.

Prior to boarding, there is yet another agent at the gate who asks us if we packed our own bags.  There are not enough seats at the gate, and we are standing - like many others.

After a long wait, we board.  Dan and I are not sitting together.  In fact, he has been put into an Economy Plus window seat, while I am again in "the middle of the middle" for the longest part of the trip home.  We are informed that our connecting flights are being rerouted.

I'm squished between two Russian guys whose families are in the rows in front and behind.  I had taken my Nook, my computer, and a couple books and put them in my backpack at the gate.  This enabled me to have them under the seat in front of me while my red wheeled-carry-on is overhead.

At 2:45 we are in the air - about two hours late.  Our connections are being rescheduled.

I'm tired.  I'm going to take a nap.

Here come the drinks.  I order a ginger ale.  The stereotype is true: all the Americans want ice while the Russians decline.  The Russians prefer juice - orange or tomato - while the Americans prefer soda - as a rule, that is.

Dinner (lunch?) was not as good as what the Russian airlines served.  It wasn't bad, but rather just tasteless.  The salad was a bowl of leaves that tasted like paper.  I took a bite and didn't touch the rest.  One of the Russian guys next to me asked me what the salad dressing was for.  I told him that it was for the "salat" - and then told him that Russian "salat" is better.  He laughed.

The chicken dish with rice wasn't bad, nor was the little cake - a sort-of mildly industrial strawberry.  he bread was definitely industrial.  Welcome back to America!  Rather than risk another instant coffee, I opted for a tea.  Less of a gamble.  It's hard to screw up tea, though it was not served with the bag as it was on Russian flights.

I would have liked to have practiced Russian with my neighbor, but I didn't even know enough to get started.  I will have to work on it.

It's 8:00 am NOLA time and our plane is crossing the border from Sweden to Norway.

I sure hope that either I can make my connection or get another route home today.  This is a long flight, but knowing that I will see Grace and Leo makes it a great joy!  I can't wait to get home!

The stewardess comes by with the coffee.  It is brewed!  I'm sure drinking coffee will be a mistake.  My poor system is not going to know whether it is time to sleep (it is 8:00 pm Novosibirsk time) or time to wake up (it's 8:00 am NOLA time) - but I'm really Jonesing for a coffee.  The Moscow Airport cheated me out of my cappuccino by its avarice.  So, no matter the consequences, I'm having my coffee, dammit, and with milk and sugar to boot!  It's not good, but it's coffee - and it didn't set me back twelve bucks either!  I figure this will help ramp me back up to the good stuff.

I almost bought a Turkish coffee urn at the Moscow airport, but Dan had warned me about the Moscow prices (confirmed by the cappuccino), and I said "nyet."  Besides, I really didn't have room in my carry-on.

After all of this liquid, I have to pee.  I'm in the middle of the middle, of course, just as I was on the way to Moscow, and both of my seatmates are sleeping.  I nudge the poor guy on my left and say: "Извините. Туалет." (Excuse me. Toilet.).  He's a good sport, and gets up to let me go by.

I have to wait a long time.

After returning, my seatmate speaks to me in broken English.  He says, "I love God."  I remember this expression from one of Richard Wurmbrand's books.  This seems to be an idiomatic way of confessing Christianity.  Indeed, he is a Christian - a Pentecostal.  He knows that I am a Christian, perhaps from my table prayer and sign of the cross, or maybe because of the cross around my neck.  I tell him that I am a Lutheran pastor.  He has lived in the U.S. for a few years, though English remains difficult for him.  His wife and children are in the seats behind us.  His children are fluent in English.  They used to live in California, and now they live in Maryland.  They just returned from a seven-month trip to Belarus to care for elderly relatives.

I get back to writing and he gets back to sleeping.  Since we are back in the Western hemisphere - just off the coast of Iceland and almost to Greenland - I change my wedding ring back to my left hand.  It feels more natural there, but has been on my right hand long enough to create a small calloused ridge.

After several hours of transferring journal notes, I decide to rest my hand.  I'm beginning to get a little tired.  It's 12:20 am Novosibirsk time, 12:20 pm New Orleans time.  We're heading into Labrador.  We have covered 5,396 km at 34,000 feet, 3:09 (hours) to destination, 2,500 km to go.  It is -38C outside of the plane.  Our ground speed is 517 mph, 835 km/h.

We land about an hour late.  It does look like I will miss my flight.  I meet up with Dan as we rush off the plane.  We head to customs, go through quickly, pick up our bags, recheck our bags, and go through security again - even though each minute that goes by means missed connections.

People are steamed.

The line is chaotic.  People are frustrated and in a hurry.  I finally emerge to inquire about my flight.  The board says it has left.  The customer service rep, an elderly man, is smart-alecky and rude, being quite obnoxious to a couple of German girls in front of me - who don't seem to understand his "humor."  He sends me to customer service at C-20, and tells me with a smirk. "There will be a long line."  I consider for a split second telling him this is why Americans are not always liked around the world.  Instead, I thank him for his "help."  Welcome back to the United States.

Anyway, I rush over to gate C-20 and meet up with Dan.  This is the selfsame place that I had met Herbert and Klaus at the other end of this adventure.  And it isn't quite over yet!  Dan had phoned me and met me there.  From the line of unhappy international travelers, I ask him if it is possible just to go back to Siberia.  Things are not looking good.  The clerk informs me that there are no other flights to New Orleans today.  He could get me to Houston.

But, here comes a break in the gloom, a tiny crack in the window of opportunity that could slam shut any second.  It seems that there are (what else?) mechanical problems on the flight to New Orleans, and it hasn't actually taken off yet.  He suggests that I run to the gate - which is a long, long way.

Dan and I sprint along the airport.  At the gate, I am told we are waiting for information.  Nevertheless, I am given a boarding pass!  Of course, this assumes that we will fly.

Dan and I head to the bar and enjoy a final пива - a couple of Stella Artois.  We were both very pleased with how the trip went, and both expressed appreciation for one another as travel companions.

We say goodbye, and I head back to my gate.  There is a Starbucks on the way, and a latte makes friends with the beer in my belly.  They seem quite as compatible as Dan and I seem to be.  I return to my gate, and it turns out that I have even more time to wait.  So, I walk back, meet up with Dan again, and wait with him at his gate.  After a short wait, he boards and departs.  I walk back to my own gate, and, thanks be to God, we are boarding!

I am even in Economy Plus this time on the A319.

God willing, I will be with my family at home soon!

It's time for this adventure to draw to a close.  We land at New Orleans Louis Armstrong Airport - which is actually in nearby Kenner where Grace and I first lived when we moved to the area - with Leo in tow in utero.  That was an adventure of a different sort, as planes used to fly so close to our home that we could just about see the faces of passengers in the windows.

We land!  With excitement that borders on disbelief, I head to baggage claim.  And there they are: Grace and Leo!  My bag arrives quickly.  Leo is beaming as both are clinging to me with excitement.  Grace drives us back to Gretna where we celebrate my homecoming to America with ice cream at McDonald's.

So now, this adventure has ended, and our adventure together as a family begins anew.  Thanks be to God!  Amen!

Here is a link to all of my pictures from Day Twenty-Four.


Dixie said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed every entry of your trip to Russia. Especially revealing was the observations you make on your return to the US. I am so embarrassed for us, as Americans, every time I return from overseas and go through customs in ATL. If foreigners don't understand the loud, southern accented barkings of the TSA or CBP (don't know who they work for) agent the agents just scream louder...sigh.

And I can confirm the drink preferences...Europeans go for iceless juices. Americans want ice and soda. (To be honest, that is my secret hop on a US bound airplane after being in Europe for a while and get ice in my sparkling water!)

Thanks for sharing your travel stories with us.

Terry Maher said...

So how bad does that train trip you were carping about from Milwaukee or some such a place seem now?

Okiebud said...

My thanks, too, for sharing. Very educational, Pastor.

Pastor J. Sollberger said...

How extraordinarily interesting your accounts have been - all the way through, Larry. How do you recall the details so well? Consistent journaling, I suppose?

In May, I will be traveling to Tanzania, and hope to give an account of my travels, as well.

Your Siberian Adventure has been as compelling and as fulfulling a page-turner as any good novel out there.

Thanks again, and travel soon - it makes for some very good reading.

mollo said...

It was great reading about your trip! Thanks for such an inspiring story and supporting the church in Russia!

Father Hollywood said...

Thanks, y'all, for your encouragement and kind words!

And Jon, enjoy your trip! I hope it is a life-changing experience for you and as much a blessing as my adventure was.

Okay, not that I'm an expert or anything, but I will offer some advice while my trip is fresh in my mind...

I kept a small pocket-sized Moleskine notebook with me at all times. I also had my small digital camera (and a small video camera, though I found that I took a lot more stills than video).

I had a great idea, but it flopped in my case: I brought a small pocket digital recorder to do some interviews, record my own voice notes, and to catch more details - but I lost it soon after arriving (my cargo pants had a small pocket that didn't have a flap, and it fell out somewhere). I hope someone in Siberia is enjoying it!

I also had a larger journal to write in, but found that I was behind a good bit of the time (I was diligent with the Moleskine, however, in getting raw notes - especially details to jog the memory later on). Journaling from the Moleskine to the larger journal was a good exercise that kept memories fresh in my mind.

Also, if you can learn some of the local language(s) (Swahili?) before you go - especially please, thank you, hello, good bye - etc. If you have time to do a beginner's Pimsleur language course, all the better!

I found it handy to keep a small backpack wherever I went (I stupidly did not bring a sweater, hat or umbrella to deal with rain, and sunglasses...). My HP Mini computer worked out really well - especially for storing pictures and video. I had purchased Carbonite so that I would not lose my files even in the event of a crash or loss of my computer. It also enabled me to do SnapYap video conferences and IM with my family.

Write a lot! Record anything that pops into your mind - you can edit later. Talk to as many people that you can and immerse yourself in the culture (I am naturally an introvert, so this was not easy for me, but really worth the effort!).

I brought small gifts to give away to people - especially to children. I also had a list of doctors that would accept my health insurance (and thankfully didn't need to use it).

Please do a blog of your trip! It has been a great joy to share my experiences with my family, parishioners, colleagues, and everyone else who might read it. I still plan on writing an epilogue, and I'm also thinking of breaking out the Siberia posts into a separate blog in chronological order.

May the Lord bless your travels and watch over you as you sojourn!

Pastor J. Sollberger said...


Thank you for the ideas. I am looking forward to my trip, and will employ many of your suggestions.

And yes, I will blog an account of my trip to Tanzania. Look for it early this summer on "Lutheran Habitus":

Thanks again, my friend. Hope to talk with you soon. Peace be with you.