Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 30, 2013

Slept relatively well and got up at six to get ready as Cate was coming by at eight to take me to visit the cemetery and the Osh bazaar. Coffee tasted better than ever as I sat at my computer to read emails and FB postings.

Cate was on time and I quickly finished eating my toast with the Nutella spread before heading out to Manas Avenue. We waited for the right marshrutka to come by and when it didn’t, Cate suggested we get a cab since she wasn’t sure about the marshrutka number anymore.

It was a long ride, past the U. S. Embassy, thus as far as I’d gone before, until we reached a turn off. The approach to the cemetery had been lined with flower vendors and lapidary stores. The street in itself was another pockmarked narrow lane where the asphalt had disappeared under the weight of the years.

We were dropped off at a specific point and Cate led the way to the grave sites she thought would be of interest to me because of their headstones, extensive ironwork fences or crosses when the deceased was of a Christian Orthodox background.

I learned that Russians of the Christian Orthodox faith allow three days for the viewing of the body after it has been embalmed. Friends and relatives gather for a meal after the burial, just like our wakes, and then return nine days later for another celebration as that day marks the day relatives believe the soul leaves the body for good.

I was sad to see how many young people were buried at this cemetery, mostly in their early twenties, and the extent to which their relatives had gone to give them an almost opulent grave. I wondered how many had died due to a drug overdose or car accidents.

We had a good walk with my climbing over brambles and weeds to get a better view and photo of some of the grave sites. We bought some cold water on the way out and boarded a marshrutka to get to the Osh bazaar.

I only had rubles left in my wallet and thus it was necessary to get to an exchange place where the clerk refused to take any of my coins. I had noticed that they round out the sum to their benefit to avoid handling any coins whatsoever.

I was hungry by then, so we stopped right next door and ordered a couple bowls of lagman soup. Cate turned down the flat bread, but I had a small piece since I hadn’t eaten any since leaving Bishkek for Russia.

It was then on to find the fly zapper we had seen at the Vanilla Sky place, and we quickly found it for 300 som or about $6.25. I still need to get an adapter to be able to charge it in the States, but I was happy with my purchase.

We happened to be very close to the place selling souvenirs and I headed that way immediately to get some felt earrings and additional silk scarves for my friends back home. The price for the scarves had already gone up, 400 som instead of the original 350 just a few weeks ago, and bought three more.

Cate was looking for shampoo, but I told her to please accept the set of shampoo and conditioner I still had at home and which I’d have no chance to use at all. She seemed reluctant at first, but then agreed to the deal.

We went across the street so I could buy a few vegetables to cook at home this week. Carrots, cabbage, onions, cilantro, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers quickly filled up several small bags and then I came across a beautiful yellow melon and had to have one along with one piece of flat bread.

The #35 bus came by a few minutes later and deposited us in front of my building. Cate came upstairs to help me with my bags and then took the bottles of shampoo and conditioner. There’s still another park she wants for me to see before my departure and will arrange for it later on this week.

I got to take a long shower, did my hair and changed into one of my favorite short night gowns to be completely relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. I then set out to update my application for the EFL program to keep it active just in case something comes up that would right up my alley.

I sent requests for letters of recommendation from both Gulnaras and from Willoughby as well. I notified Jennifer of my intentions hoping she’ll second my application by confirming I had done a decent job while working under her supervision. It’s now out of my hands what ultimately happens.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

June 29, 2013

I had agreed to meet with Ekatarina for coffee today, and she chose 11:00 am as the right time for her. We settled on Vanilla Sky so I could continue to work on updating my blog entries until she got there.

We sat in the glassed-in terrace which features a cascade of water falling quietly over the glass windows. I have no idea what feat of engineering allowed that to happen. She had brought me a gorgeous pair of earrings to match the garnet ring I got in Nepal years ago. We both ordered latte, and then I decided to peruse the selection of pastries inside and settled for one covered with coconut flakes.

I was told it was 60 som and that was reasonable, but when I asked the clerk to send it to my table in the terrace she told me that was the price if I wanted the pastry to go, but to eat it in the restaurant, it would cost me 100 som. I turned it down simply refusing to go along with such an idiotic notion.

Cate, as Ekaterina prefers to be called, was a participant in the workshops I offered at the Russian Slavonic University back in November. She’s currently teaching test preparation classes for the American University of Central Asia. She’d been the only participant at that university to ever show any interest in receiving additional materials and to have kept in touch until now.

After talking for a couple of hours, we discovered we’re truly kindred souls. We constantly strive to become better professionals at what we do, we like to stay informed and think critically about the issues facing humanity, love to read and watch films that portrait life as it really is while generously offering our knowledge and resources to anyone who can benefit from it.

In addition, we’re feisty women who refuse to be cowered when we see an injustice being committed anywhere and against anyone. Clearly, such posture can bring negative repercussions, which we’re willing to deal with instead of becoming just another “Yes” person.

I noticed a server going around with an object that looked like a small racquetball, but which was being used to zap flies inside the terrace. When I inquired about it, Cate told me it was a product made in China that can be charged overnight and then used to kill flies, something like a taser.

I immediately demanded to know where I could buy one for my mom as I know she goes berserk when flies get inside her house. Cate offered to go with me to the Osh bazaar tomorrow since I still want to buy a few felt earrings for my friends in Florida and she reassured me I could find the fly taser there as well. 

We took a walk in the park behind my building, the one I hadn’t had time to explore yet and sat in bench to talk for hours. We now have plans to visit a Christian Orthodox cemetery early tomorrow morning, as she’s learned about my obsession with cemeteries, and then later on to the Osh bazaar.

Cate accompanied me to the convenience store across the street so I could buy some take out items for dinner and then I showed her the apartment.  We ran into the cleaning lady on the stairs and she informed Cate that I was behind on the payment for such services.

Cate promised to send me some links to movies she’s seen online that dealt with the issues of corruption, government lying campaigns, the big business religion is and others. I’m so fortunate to have found someone like her just a few days before my departure.

My landlady came around five to inform me she’d be out of town until the 14 of July. I, in turn, informed her I needed to keep the apartment beyond the original July 1 date since I’d now be leaving earlier than planned and would not be making the trip to Dushanbe that I’d dreamed about so long.

She agreed to my paying on a day-to-day basis and designated her girlfriend to come and pick up the payment and the key on the 11th of July. She reassured me the girlfriend still wanted to buy both my sleeping bag and backpack. I was surprised as to how easy going she was about the whole thing. She, in turn, remarked as to how cool the apartment was with only the one A/C unit on.
June 28, 2013

Up at the usual time still fuming about the incident the previous night. Went down to the dining room for breakfast hoping that Jennifer might have left already for Astana and I would not have to face her again. A few minutes after I sat at the table, Jennifer came down with Natalia and sat at the table next to ours.

Salads graced the table, but no coffee. When asked about it, the server brought a small quantity in a tea bowl and acted surprised when we asked for cups. He indicated the kitchen had no cups that morning. I had another meltdown and asked him how it was possible that the kitchen had had over 200 cups the previous afternoon, but now expected their guests to drink coffee from a tea bowl.

He gave me a blank look and I just stormed out of the room. Willoughby called me from the hallway and asked why I had left her behind and I apologized profusely to her. I had a few pieces of pastries to eat and Willoughby offered another envelope of 3-in-1 to go with it until we could have lunch.

The bus was expected to pick us up at 1:00, but at 12:20 the dining room was still no ready for us to eat. When the food did arrive, it was buckwheat, something I also detest. The vegetarian plate: buckwheat with slices of tomatoes and cucumbers.

I saw someone with a plate of salad and found out a variety of salads had been laid out near the kitchen door and headed there to fill my stomach with at least some greens. Corrie, Annah, Sarah and Asia shared the table with me and we all talked about life after our stint in Central Asia. I mentioned I had no plans beyond getting to Florida as soon as possible.

Willoughby left the table to secure the two front seats for us as soon as the bus arrived. We had packed before lunch and were ready to go. The tourist bus, the big one with wide windows, was designated for the delegates from other countries and the ones for Kyrgyzstan were sent to the marshrutkas. We ended up in a pretty new one with plenty of elbow room.

Elvira sat behind us never uttering a sentence. I guess she’d decided that as long as Willoughby sticks around me, neither one of us exists. The driver chose to drive through the old road heading to Tokmok since some of the teachers wanted to be dropped us along the way. The drive was long and tedious as we got into heavy rush hour traffic as we reached Bishkek.

Willoughby and I shared a taxi to our respective places. I was simply delighted to be back at my place and hopeful I could get a full night sleep.
June 27, 2013

Willoughby knocked on my door by 7:30 so we could go together to have breakfast. More salads were on display on the table, but no coffee or cream. There were some cold cuts and bread so I made another sandwich while David joked around the table.

The first presentation I attended had to do with teacher training and critical thinking, but I can’t remember a whole lot about it. The presenter ran through her slides extremely fast and was done in less than the forty minutes allotted. Since there was another presentation going on right behind her, I sidled up to it and caught the tail end of a workshop on teaching proverbs.

I asked the presenter if I could have her email it to me and she referred me to her FB link to the “Shaping the Way we Teach English” website where her group in Kazakhstan had uploaded other materials as well. I got lost in the maze of corridors looking for the next presenter only to find out she had been moved to the same room I had just left.

Here we did an exercise writing a poem about our origins which reminded me of the ones my students had done when I taught secondary school. Ann McAllen returned with a workshop on global issues ELF teachers should engage their students in and was mesmerized by all the different possibilities and websites she mentioned. I added the “Upcycle” website to her list of ideas for recycling, reusing and remaking.

It was time for Willoughby to present and she had been given a tiny room with no laptop or PowerPoint. Willoughby, who had never put together a presentation had done so this time, but was told she not requested any equipment on her original application and there would be none available now.

In spite of that, and using notes in the old-fashioned way, she conducted a thrilling workshop on how to write rubrics that matched the objectives of the lesson. I helped my group write a rubric for speaking activities and got it done within the time allotted. She received effusive comments from the participants and requests for additional information as well.

Lunch was just slightly better with the same salad as the day before, but lamb and potatoes for the main course. I sat with a group of Tajik teachers and learned they taught at the same university as the teacher with whom I had conducted the Access summer camp last year in Khorog. They all knew Mabluda and best of all, knew all about the vocabulary I’d given her and the fly swatters to play games.

They couldn’t believe they were sitting in front of the same trainer Mabluda had spoken about so often. They also mentioned that they still play the games I had taught her but couldn’t say if she continued to work for the Access program.

Willoughby and I attended two sessions on critical thinking and reading from university professors who taught in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Both presentations were quite engaging and each teacher allowed me to copy it to my flashdrive for possible use in the future.

During the coffee break, Jennifer called for a short meeting of all the EFLs to say how glad she'd been to have had a chance to work with all of us and that none of us would be returning to our respective posts. Toni decided to gush about Jennifer's skills as a RELO while I only asked about her policy regarding letters of recommendation. She was firm in saying she'd not issue general letters, but would reply to individual requests for specific jobs.

After the coffee break, we listened to another plenary speaker on the subject of the state of the profession and its professional development. Jennifer said a few words of closing and then handed out certificates of appreciation to all the English language coordinators at the respective embassies in Central Asia.

Tahmina, from Tajikistan, hadn’t been able to come to the conference and I was glad to have been spared her presence during this event. The staff at Lingua was called in and given a certificate for their efforts in coordinating the entire event and even Anna was called to the stage. My name never came up.

The weather was a bit more agreeable, so a walk on the lake shore was in order. I convince Willoughby to take off her shoes and sandals as I knew that walking on the sand is the best exercise for the legs. We ran into quite a few other attendees doing the same and talked to them along the way. I had brought my tablet and took some photos as well.

On the way back, we saw Holly and three other female EFLs practicing the Kazak dance for the cultural night event happening after dinner. I had turned down the opportunity to participate as had already seen it in Shymkent and found it extremely boring.

Willoughby decided to go back to the restaurant in the lobby while I went to the dining room hoping the hotel would offer something special for our last night there. There was a somewhat spicy salad on the table and I sat next to Umed, from Tajikistan. Asel came by later on and sat next to me.

A DJ was playing music and soon a woman and another man started singing songs that everyone seemed to know for most of the audience could sing along with it. The main dish came and it was another disappointment: two lumps of beef with no color or flavor and chunks of potatoes. I passed the beef on to Umed and ate the potatoes along with Asel’s salad.

The cultural night was due to start at 8:30 and Willoughby was nowhere to be seen. I went up to her room and convinced her to come and join us as Asel had asked me to bring my flashdrive with Latin music so I could dance a bit for the crowd.

Tables were cleared and a center stage was set for each country, starting with Tajikistan, to sing or dance as they pleased. I loved listening to Tajik music again and seeing the graceful dancer from the Khorog region in her traditional garb. The male dancers from Uzbekistan left me breathless for their speed and agility. The Turkwomen sang a song in a manner I’d never seen and would find difficult to explain.

Kazakhstan followed with a dance by a woman with a tea pot apparently trying to woo a male. The floor was then yielded to the American contingent and Jennifer took the mike. I asked her quickly if she could allow two minutes for me to play a merengue song and she nodded her assent.

ELFs and Peace Corps volunteers played a variety of instruments and country songs I had never heard before Holly and the other ELFs took to the floor to do the Kazakh dance. The audience erupted in applause as they usually do when Americans make fools of themselves.

Holly then instructed the DJ to play the “Cotton-eye Joe” song we had listened to while learning line dancing in Almaty last January. She asked everyone who had been at the mid-year conference to stand up and join her, but I pretended not to hear for I hate line dancing.

Jennifer looked at me and said I needed to join the group despite my protest that I didn’t remember any of the steps. She replied she didn’t either and it was something to be done to demonstrate group spirit or some other kind of drivel to the same effect. I felt I had no choice but to jump and slide as best I could while the crow laughed uproariously.

Holly had yet another performance in which she and two other girls played the role of cheerleaders and had Bill lift them sequentially into each other’s backs to then jump forward. All of this was done to the most god-awful music at ear-splitting levels that you can possibly fathom. When Holly was done, Jennifer put the microphone down and whispered to me that the Americans were out of time even though no signal had been sent to that effect.

I knew deep within me that the slight had not been unplanned. She certainly doesn’t see me as an American, never has, and was not about to let me play music she certainly doesn’t think reflect what the United States is. As soon as the Kyrgyz representatives finished their performance, I went to my room red in face with embarrassment and a deep sense of hate.
June 26, 2013

As it is usual for me, I could hardly sleep thinking about my presentation on barriers to critical thinking. I got up early and looked through the slides one more time and inserted the answers to the warm up questions to save time.

I wore my long Tajik dress and got a lot of stares and looks of confusion from many of the participants who couldn’t understand why an African-looking woman was wearing an Uzbek/Tajik dress. Breakfast was the usual rice porridge I detest, but small plates of salad had been placed on the table along with slices of bread, salami and cheese.

I made a sandwich with those three items and had to request coffee from one of the servers as none had been offered so far. Rich didn’t even know coffee was on the menu for us. He related how he had stayed at the Aurora Sanatorium twenty years ago while traveling with his son in the region.

We moved on to the cinema hall where the plenary was to take place and listened to speeches from Gulnara from Lingua, Jennifer and the ambassador. They yielded the floor to Ann McAllen who gave the plenary speech about critical thinking and the mixed ability classroom which resonated with me as she outlined many of the same strategies I use in my classroom.

I went to listen to the presentation on sideline coaching which Chris had demonstrated at the mid-year conference in Almaty hoping to hear how the teachers in Khorog had reacted to it. He’d brought his counterpart with him and Nigina testified as to the usefulness of the technique and how much it had benefited her in her professional development.

The next presentation was intended to demonstrate the use of critical thinking in the teaching of vocabulary, but the presenter’s flashdrive didn’t open up and the PowerPoint presentation was not available. She read from her notes, but that was pretty lifeless and boring. It was also her first time presenting and she appeared very nervous.

It was then my turn and unfortunately they had placed me in a large room that had been divided into two by a series of flimsy screens. I could clearly hear the presenter in the other room and I’m sure he could hear me, too. I had 33 attendees, a good number I’d say, and the warm up went very well with some groups getting as high as six out of ten of the barriers to critical thinking.

Natalia, from the embassy, came in a few minutes after I’d started and sat at the back. The time just flew and forty minutes later I was handing out my business card telling the teachers that the presentation would be available to them via email. Willoughby took a couple of photos and congratulated me at the end stating that the material had been very instructive.

We had enough time to catch part of Asia’s presentation on teaching debate in the classroom and we really enjoy her bantering with the teachers and her acting skills. It was then time for lunch, which Willoughby turned down and went to her room to rest, while I appropriated an entire platter of salad for my own.

Asia had told she had said she was vegetarian and the food for vegetarians was usually of higher quality and fresher than otherwise. I played that card and got a bowl of soup with some noodles and not even salt in it. The main dish could not even be described, but David thought it might have been bread dipped in egg and then fried. I took a bite and spit it back into a napkin as it was simply vile.

After lunch, I went to see Sarah’s presentation on alternative ways of assessing students. She has a background in public school teaching and does an amazing job of demonstrating exactly what to do in specific situations. Willoughby went to listen to David’s presentation on critical thinking activities, which I had already seen.

The last presentation I attended was led by an Uzbek teacher who spoke English so fluently he could have almost passed for an American. He teaches EAP and spoke about the uses of authentic texts. We spoke at the end and I learned his university is accredited by the Westminster University in the UK and that’s why they offered EAP classes. We exchanged business cards and promised to stay in touch.

I changed clothes so Willoughby and I could take a walk along the lake even though the skies had turned black and rain threatened to start falling anytime. The temperature had dropped considerably and I was wearing my beige shawl for protection. I thought I heard thunder in the distance and then the rain started. We had to turn back to the hotel without even seen the lake.

It was dinner time by then and Willoughby refused to entertain the notion of having another awful meal in the dining room and asked me to accompany her to one of the restaurants located near the lobby. I wasn’t so keen on the idea for I knew it would be rather expensive, but caved in and headed in that direction.

No one spoke English, so we were having a tough time making sense of the menu when a group of attendees, all women, walked in and greeted us. They had pre-ordered their meals and were ready to eat. They all commented on how unpalatable the food had been for conference attendees. With their help, we managed to order steak for Willoughby and salmon for me with French fries and some kind of vegetable on the side.

It took over an hour for these two dishes to arrive as apparently the restaurant was also supplying meals to the bar next door and couldn’t cope with so many diners at once. The salmon was all right, the French fries lukewarm only and no vegetables at all. When we inquired about it, they told us to wait six minutes and then brought a medley of tomatoes, onions and turnips that was quite delicious.

As we were making our way to the elevator, we ran into Gulnara from Lingua and another woman and Gulnara asked if we were coming along to the mingle activity. I said I needed to drop some stuff at my room, but instead of going there, I took my other Tajik outfit to the ironing room on the second floor to get it ready for the next day.

I went to bed full as a tick and happy to have spent the money on a good meal.

Friday, June 28, 2013

June 25, 2013

I had set up my alarm for 6:30 just in case, but it wasn’t necessary as I was up at five when light started to filter through my curtains. I had packed almost everything I needed except for the laptop and a few snack to bring along the way.

Willoughby showed up at 8:00 and we immediately grabbed a taxi parked in front of the complex to take us to the terminal where a young man brusquely grabbed our bags and took us to a marshrutka parked across the street. I insisted we could only go with him if we got the two front seats. He agreed and placed the our backpacks in his minivan and went out to search for more passengers.

We don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden, everyone in the marshrutka exited it, picked up their bags and ran across the street. We did the same and found a newer vehicle with the two front seats still available which quickly filled in allowing us to be on the road at exactly nine o’clock.

We had a pit stop at a new roadside restaurant where the bathroom was spotless and odor-free. Why can’t other places imitate it? Sure, the building was new, but the other places are also charging a fee that they could invest into building toilets such as this one that don’t make you feel like losing your lunch during your visit.

                       View of the landscape taken with my tablet camera at a pit stop

When we got into Cholponata, the driver indicated he’d continue further down the road to deliver other passengers, so we were able to get to the Green Pub without having to hire a taxi. We ordered a beer and the pork steak with barbecue sauce as it was listed on the menu. It was as divine as the first time with the fries being delivered piping hot as I like them.

The waitress called a taxi for us to take us directly into the Aurora Sanatorium as neither one of us wanted to walk from the main road carrying our luggage. It cost 300 soms and I agreed to pay it from my allowance for the trip. The place is showing its age with the gray buildings losing some of its concrete chunks in some places.

The pre-conference event was just breaking for coffee when we walked into the lobby. Both Gulnaras, Jennifer, Natalia and others greeted us until I said I needed to get to my room and get rid of my heavy shoulder bag. Jennifer said: “Go, Ercilia. We don’t need you now.” To which I replied tongue-in-cheek: “have you ever?” Jennifer didn’t find it funny at all.

Natasha, from Lingua, pulled me aside to say she really needed for me to chair the meeting with the Peace Corps volunteers who were going to organize the evening entertainment on Wednesday. I felt I had no choice, but to say yes.

                                               View from my window

                                   View of the lake from my window

Willoughby and I got rooms on the fourth floor facing the lake. We each had a double bed, a night table, a piece of furniture that could double as a desk, a small fridge and a teakettle and bowls to brew tea.

Wi-Fi access was to be had only in the lobby unless I was willing to pay 100 soms a day for access in my room. The day was clear and the waters placid. I knew the water would still be too cold for me, but could see guests at the hotel coming back with towels over their shoulders.

We went down for dinner at 7:00 and sat with a couple of other Peace Corps volunteers. I wasn’t particularly hungry and had thought that a bowl of soup or a salad could do for dinner. There was a mound of something on a small plate at each seat, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell what it was. A local teacher said it was shredded chicken with melted cheese on top. And that was supposed to be our salad!

The second course, if you can believe this, was a cornmeal porridge. We were all looking around puzzled while trying to decipher whether the kitchen staff had confused the times of day and thought they were cooking breakfast instead of dinner. The porridge wasn’t bad once I tasted it.

The main course was another mystery dish, as we started labeling them, and even the Peace Corps volunteer who had offered to eat my salad, couldn’t tell what it was, but said it tasted like meatloaf somewhat. Willoughby ate nothing and I had the porridge just in case I could get the munchies later on.

The Peace Corps volunteer’s counterpart didn’t take lightly to our derisive comments about the meal and asked me if I had tried beshbarmak, a dish I’d come to loathe for its limp noodles, greasy flavor and excessive quantify of meat. I said yes, three times in fact, and still didn’t like it. They both felt I needed to visit the Naryn region to have a different experience, but I thought to myself, spare me, please.

Once dinner was over, I approached Natasha to find out where our meeting to plan the evening entertainment was going to take place. I was surprised to find both Gulnara from Lingua and Amanda present for it since I’d thought no one but me was available. Gulnara spoke most of the time until we agreed to just have a “Find someone…” form of mingle activity prior to the raffle that Chynara had been assigned to carry out.

I really couldn’t see the purpose of my presence, and Willoughby’s, at that meeting. 
June 24, 2013

I got up at six feeling so groggy and disoriented that it took me a few minutes to realize I was finally at home and could make coffee my way. What a thrill!

I set out to email the e-book after doing a final spell check and composing a somewhat lengthy email to accompany it mentioning its origins and asking for the recipients to pass it on to their colleagues and acquaintances. It was quite a relief to see the email being transmitted and knowing it was off my hands at last.

Willoughby was the first one to write to congratulate me on getting this task off my desk. That reminded me to forward the file to Bill Perry, at the Peace Corps office here in Kyrgyzstan, as he had helped with it initially, and for him to distribute it to the new volunteers. He wrote back to say the file was too large for the volunteers’ email, but he was going to make sure that Nurkys, the TEFL coordinator, arranged for them to bring a flashdrive and copy it into them.

Johanna wrote to approve my early leave request and indicated she was going through a similar situation at home as well. I wrote reminding her that I was still waiting her approval of my expenses related to the trip I took to attend the conference Holly had organized in Shymkent and which I had submitted last April. This time, she wrote back immediately and approved the expense report.

Willoughby and I agreed to travel to Issyk-Kul on our own instead of waiting until 1:30 pm to travel with the rest of the participants from the Bishkek/Chuy area as we wanted to stop for lunch in Cholponata where we had had some delicious pork chops last month.

I notified Georgetown of my change in travel itinerary and Alisa replied immediately by sending me a tentative flight schedule that would have taken me from Istanbul-New York City-Atlanta-Palm beach with another six hour layover in Turkey, something I had vehemently requested they avoided.

I wrote to say I knew other fellows had gone home through London and also knew I could fly directly to Palm Beach from either NYC or Newark, NJ and couldn’t see the need to route me through that infamous airport in Atlanta, Georgia.

At first, Alisa denied that flying through London was an option, but later on sent me a revised itinerary where I’ll fly London-NYC-Palm Beach getting into Florida at 9:06 pm instead of on the 13th after midnight. I thanked her for her efforts and immediately notified my sister, so she can make arrangements to pick me up that night.

Ekaterina, one of the teachers who attended my teacher training sessions at the Russian Slavonic University, sent a heartwarming message indicating how useful the book was going to be for her classes since the tables were so easy to follow and the exercises had answer keys to them. She wanted to get together before my departure, and we agreed to do so next Saturday after my return from CATEC.

I sent Gulnara at Lingua a message notifying her of my early departure and asking to confirm that my participation in her summer seminar could take place between the 8 and 10th of July so as not conflict with my new schedule of departure.

It was great to have had a full day to myself, without any interruptions, to catch up with so many tasks.
June 23, 2013

The flight from Saint Petersburg to Bishkek lasted five hours. For the first time, I got to observe the moon shining on the left side of the plane while the sun rose on my right. It was quite a thrilling experience.

The airline had allowed me to bring on board my bulky backpack since it was essentially empty, so we were able to skip customs and just walked out where an older taxi driver offered to take us into the city for a combined fee of 600 soms. While approaching my flat, Willoughby discovered that she was missing her house key and I invited her to my place to make other arrangements.

The key didn’t turn up in her handbag or backpack, so she called her landlady who would not pick up her phone. I offered her coffee and my couch if she still needed to sleep some more. I got to work on my many messages and other tasks while she slept. When she woke up, there was still no return call from Tatiana, so we went together to the supermarket nearby so I could buy water, milk, juice and other staples. 

Temperature outside was close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and inside it didn’t feel much cooler.

Upon returning, I asked Willoughby to look through the updated version of my resume to see if she had any suggestions. We worked on it for a while as she felt my version was a bit too wordy and that I had overlooked some significant points such as giving that speech in Shymkent.

Tatiana finally called and agreed to meet Willoughby at her flat by 4:00. I spent the rest of the day sending out emails to my RELO, the embassy people and others asking to allow me an earlier leave, five days in fact, so I could go home on the twelfth instead of the seventeenth. I explained my mom’s condition and my desire to be there for her. Jennifer wrote back immediately to say she was fine with it, but I still needed approval from the PAO.

By the late afternoon, the kitchen and study area felt like an oven, so I made sure all windows were closed and turned on the A/C unit to see if it was capable of cooling off the entire apartment. It didn’t quite reach the kitchen; I spend little time there anyway, but the study where my computer is definitely felt more welcoming.

I made a firm commitment to sending out the e-book to everyone before CATEC hoping to get some feedback from some of the participants. I decided to add three more items and as result, I needed to modify the entire index page and its numbering, but it was worth it because the pages dealt with a the use of “so, too, either and neither”, which many teachers here still get confused or don’t use at all. When it got to be half past eleven, I went to bed exhausted, but almost done.

My sinuses continued to feel clogged despite the medication. It’ll probably take another week to clear my lungs completely.
June 22, 2013

I woke up a three o’clock having slept my required six hours. Outside the kitchen window, a huge yellow moon shined. I was so entranced by it that I wanted to record its existence and went to my bag to retrieve my camera.

Willoughby had also gotten up complaining that the air mattress had deflated and it was almost touching the floor. We used the electric pump to add some air to it and I tried to go back to sleep, but was unable to do so, I got up around four and did some reading of my own.

I cooked the remaining salami, heated up the bread and ate some of it as I then found the salami to be way to too salty for my taste. I took my shower first and then cleaned up the kitchen while Willoughby took hers. She made the bed and then we packed everything to wait for Zhirdal to come and pick us up at nine.

I was afraid that Alexander might choose to let me keep the set of keys so as not to return the additional money, but at ten to nine he showed up with Irina and put a thousand note ruble on one of the stools and pointed to it. I took the keys from my jean pocket and gave it to him.

Irina tried to say that she was hoping we’d not think that all Russians were mafia type that were trying to get money from us dishonestly. She felt we had made an arrangement for a three-day stay and should have paid for all three days even if we didn’t make use of the flat the entire time. I told her that she could tell we weren’t rich people traveling in style and that we needed every ruble we could save.

I showed them the flat making sure they could tell that every item they had left in it was still there and that the place was spotless as well. Zhirdal met us at the entrance and took us in his car around the city as he wanted to show us where he’d gone to school, the naval academy, and the famous ship “Aurora” where the first blast was sounded that started the October Revolution. We took some photos together, got his email and promised to send them to him.

I was really touched by his kindness and his overall concern about these two foreign women traveling alone with knowledge of Russian so to speak. After driving us around for over an hour, he pulled up at the main train station and insisted on coming with us to check our bags for day while we continued to tour the city.

Once we got our tickets, he bid us goodbye and promised to stay in touch. I had begged Willoughby to change our itinerary slightly as I had read about a famous cemetery where the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were buried and really needed to go and see it. The cemetery was part of a complex containing a church, a palace and other installations. As usual, a separate fee had to be paid to gain entrance to each one.

Willoughby wasn’t interested in paying 200 rubles, $6.25, to see old graves, so she agreed to sit by the entrance and wait for me while I did a fast run around the small cemetery train in vain to recognize any of the names written in either Cyrillic or Latin to no avail.

Instead, I feasted my eyes on some of the most elaborate tombstones I’ve ever seen made from materials ranging from plain stone to marble and concrete cement. A few graves sported fresh flowers thus indicating people still cared about those buried there. A few of the graves had cracked and some were already sinking into the ground.

Back to the metro it was for the long ride to the proper station so we could get to the Peterhof Fountains. Once at street level, I tried to find a place to eat, but only found something like a pub where a bunch of low lifes were watching a movie on a flat screen TV while shouting at it. I ordered a solyanka soup and a cappuccino for Willoughby.

My soup was tasteless and it seemed to have been reheated and the coffee was so bad Willoughby couldn’t drink it. It seemed as if they had boiled milk and added it to instant coffee. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature had risen considerably when I got in line to get us into the trolley to get to the tourist trap.

We then paid another 50 rubles for the privilege of riding for one full hour; I was standing while Willoughby sat, to be dropped off at the entrance to the place where a long walk, in the sun, awaited us. This time I really questioned my judgment for I had no need to boast about the fact that I had seen the famed fountains.

Willoughby sat at the first bench she could find once inside the property, and I went in search of the ticket booth to pay for my admission ticket since she wasn’t interested in seeing it. When I turned another corner, I found three long lines of people, in the sun, waiting to buy tickets. By the looks of it, you’d think they were giving away something for free.

I turned around and left rejoining Willoughby who was more than happy to see me come back so quickly. On the way out, I’d seen a poster of the place and had to remark on the fact that the fountains looked awfully similar to the ones I’d seen at the Vizcaya mansion in Miami. It almost looked as if someone had seen that same poster and just copied the idea. I guessed I didn’t really miss much by not seeing them.

I had one more wish on my list and that had been to see at least the exterior of the Marinski Theater, but Willoughby patiently explained we didn’t have enough time to return to the main train station, retrieve our packs, get something for dinner, and then ride the metro all the way south where it connected with the bus that would eventually take us to the airport. A taxi would have cost us around $60-70.00 for the same service.

After riding a marshrutka that charged us 70.00 rubles each, we trudged back to the metro with the escalators appearing to be longer than ever. At the main train station, we found an elegant coffee house, Café du Nord, that purported have been functioning there since the 1800s. We had coffee and I ordered a piece of black bread to assuage my hunger since Willoughby wanted to have dinner at the airport.

Backpacks at hand, we boarded the metro, connected with the trolley and got to the airport by 8:00. We found a restaurant that offered Wi-Fi and got to sit in the patio where a cool breeze was blowing. I was finally able to totally relax knowing the hard part of the journey had been completed and that Willoughby and I had not had a single disagreement and still remained good friends. She had a steak and I ordered salmon, and we drank a beer to celebrate.

Finding our check-in counter proved quite daunting as there were no signs in English or anyone who spoke the language. When the flight was announced, we ended up behind a bunch of Kyrgyz people flying home the way Dominicans do, that’s full of packages and voluminous suitcases. When told they had exceeded their baggage allowance, they tried to negotiate or bribe the airline personnel to avoid doing so.

When we were checking in, a woman and her son approached us to beg us to carry their bags as they had no money to pay for them. Willoughby was adamant that she wouldn’t do so as what was the purpose of traveling light if you were going to then carry somebody else’s belongings. The woman was almost tearful as she approached me again, but I told her I didn’t speak Russian and didn’t know the regulations.

She was able to board the plane with just two bags, so apparently somebody else helped her out after all. I sat next to the window and two young Kyrgyz men sitting on the remaining seats talked all the time preventing me from sleeping. Willoughby was able to find an empty row and went to sleep right away.
June 21, 2013

As much as I had tried to stay on top of one of the ridges of the air mattress, I ended up sliding to the center and waking up in the process. Fed up with that, I got up early to have my coffee and had a couple pieces of pastry before Willoughby was ready to depart for our visit to the Hermitage Museum.

The morning was sunny and cool as we waited for the marshrutka across the street. When it came by at 8:00, it was crowded with commuters and while Willoughby got someone to yield their seat to her, I rode standing next to metal bar protecting the driver, but jabbing at my hip at every stop and turn he took.

The walk to the metro station seemed to take forever as hundreds of commuters competed for space on the sidewalk. There was also a long queue to buy the tokens as well. At the metro station corresponding to the Hermitage Museum they must have built the longest escalator in the world, the one where from the middle you can’t see either its beginning or its end. Exhausting.

Once at street level, we found a McDonald’s and Willoughby asked to go in a get a rest before starting the touring of the museum. We had Wi-Fi access and found a message from Lingua still insisting on Peace Corps volunteers to get together to organize a plan to entertain the attendees at CATEC. I didn’t bother replying since I was officially on vacation.

Across from the Hermitage Museum, a naval cadet graduation ceremony seemed to be taking place with lots of relatives dressed to the nines and bearing bouquets of flowers while patiently waiting behind the lines. I got into another line to pay the admission fee, 400 rubles or $12.50, while Willoughby sat nearby. To my dismay, the initial fee was only for one portion of the museum, so they had a full menu of options for access to the other areas.

The administrators had not designed a particular way for people to get to the window once they come into the building, so everyone just crowded in front of the first window they found. Once again, no signs in English, no maps or guides unless you brought your own, which many people had done, of course.

People were swarming around like flies; angling to get the best shots for their favorite pieces in the museum and in the everybody else’s way in the process. The flashes kept getting into my eyes and maneuvering around them became simply maddening. I wondered just for a minute what madness had come into me to convince me that it was worth the time and money to come to this place so I could be surrounded by people.

We headed straight for the 19th and early 20th century area where entire rooms had been devoted to the paintings of such masters as Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Monet and other famous ones. We toured some of the rooms where the Romanoff family had lived before their execution, but after a while felt that it was too much to take in at once.

I asked for a rest and the chance to drink some real coffee. The museum coffee shop had been an afterthought placed along a corridor with just a few narrow tables and chairs as they could fit in. They only sold coffee, pastries and cold sandwiches as you’d find at a gas station in the U.S. With no place available to sit, I wasn’t about to pay good money to drink my coffee standing up.

I told Willoughby I rather see only the collection of Faberge eggs I’d read so much about and then leave the museum for good. When I inquired as to the location of the eggs, I was told, of course, that they were located in a separate building with its own entrance fee of 300 rubles or about ten dollars.

I was willing to pay fee considering that I might never have a chance to see those precious items again, but when the clerk told me I had to go back outside into the queue again to obtain my ticket, I said forget it. We left the museum, went across the street on the port side and inquired about getting to the Peterhof Fountains the next day. No one spoke English, but prices were on display and ranged from 600, about $20.00, to 1,150.

I went back to the same place as the day before for lunch, but this time the food was awful and the place overcrowded. Just a few feet away, we boarded the boat that would take us on a ride through the three rivers that join the city together through numerous canals. It was the best part of the our trip as for only 600 rubles, we got to see many of the sights from a different angle and others we hadn’t had a chance to see at all. I used my table to take numerous shots.

Once done with the ride, I wanted to take some photos around the park and Willoughby decided it was time for another visit to Baskin and Robbins, so I left her there with my belongings and roamed around the area looking for a collection of statues mentioned in my guidebook, but never found them. Someone must have spirited them away completely. 

On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at the convenience store right in front and I bought flat bread, salami and beer from a woman dressed like a Tajik or Uzbek person and sporting a gold grille on her teeth. I grilled the salami in the saucepan and then the flat bread and had that with my beer. Willoughby had purchased another sandwich from a different vendor and was glad when I toasted it for her.

I went to bed at nine while Willoughby stayed up reading from her Kindle.
June 20, 2013

When I woke up at 5:30, Willoughby was already out of her berth and out in the corridor having had a cup of coffee already. She thought we were due at the station at 5:45 instead of an hour later and had been very diligent in getting herself ready ahead of everyone else.

Once at the station, the same scenario replayed itself: no information booth, no one who spoke English, no free maps or much open anyway. We walked outside and approached a taxi driver who wanted 2000 rubles to take us to the apartment because he claimed it was really far. That was twice what Irina had mentioned and even then 1,000 rubles would be $32.00 and we didn’t have the equivalent to $64.00 dollars in rubles at hand.

I told Willoughby we should try getting there by metro and marshrutka as the instructions indicated and just see what happened. We found the right station, walked out into an incredibly ugly and noisy intersection and got directions to Hoh Chi Min Boulevard. The marshrutka we needed came by in just a few minutes and Willoughby sat next to the driver to show him the address where we were heading.

After a long ride, we arrived at a place full of apartment buildings painted in different colors to differentiate them. Most of its residents seemed to be of Central Asian descent, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Tatiana’s brother-in-law’s wife was looking out for us from her window and came down to greet us and allowed me to use their bathroom.

She then called the apartment owner who came to get us in his car, he was Russian, and took us to yet another apartment building nearby. The flat in itself had not been lived in and only feature a stove, a sink, a table with two low stools and an air mattress with a comforter and bed sheet on it.There was no fridge and just a few cooking utensils. We only planned to be there three nights and so resigned ourselves to the rather spartan conditions.

Alexander, the owner, who spoke no English, got someone on the telephone, another Irina, to inform us he wanted an additional 1,000 rubles or about $33.00 as a key deposit in case we lost it. I refused indicating we were two mature women who knew how to take care of such things. He wasn’t happy, but accepted the situation. Irina confirmed we’d be leaving the flat early on Saturday and then offered us a ride to the main train station at 6:00 am.

The weather could not have been better as we left the flat to head to the historical part of Saint Petersburg. We rode the marshrutka and then the metro to the Nevsky Prospect and walked to the Church of the Spilled Blood as the name had caught Willoughby’s attention and she wanted to see it first.

 I happened to spot the sign for the Baskin Robbins ice cream across the street and Willoughby insisted on going there to try it. When I learned that just one minuscule scoop was going to cost me the equivalent to $5.16, I only ordered one of the rum raisin flavor and found it lacking. Willoughby swore their pistachio flavor was superb and had a second serving.

We got in line to pay 250 rubles to get into the church and found it crowded with tourists from Spain and Italy that were accompanied by their respective tour guides who were competing for the right to be heard in the small space. Here was another example of a church whose entire altar and all adornments had been ransacked during the Soviet period and the church turned into a market. The new altar was a splendid one I have to say.

Lunch took place at kind of cafeteria offering Wi-Fi where I was able to get some mashed potatoes and some kind of eggplant and zucchini dish to accompany it. Willoughby settled for a cappuccino. I needed to exchange more dollars for rubles and hadn’t seen an exchange place anywhere along our walks.

Back on Nevsky, we found a couple of banks and one of them had a clerk who told us in English to keep walking a bit more. The place we found was crowded to the rafters and each customer needed to take a number. Unable to tell what window corresponded to what, I approached a young woman and showed her my dollars. She understood and took me to a different booth to stand there for the exchange.

We then had to find a pharmacy for my nose continued to drip like a faucet and I was having difficulties breathing and talking at the same time. With the help of another customer who spoke English, I was able to buy anti-histamine and some cough drops. Willoughby suggested I ask for a cup of water to take the medication immediately, but the pharmacy said they only had bottled water and I’d have to buy one, which I had no choice but to do.

We made the return trip by metro and wanted to find a supermarket before getting into the marshrutka so we could buy a few staples for dinner, but couldn’t find one across any of the four points around us. Since we remembered seeing several convenience stores around the block of flats, we resigned ourselves to getting whatever was available there.

Willoughby decided to buy the local kind of sandwich that looks like a cross between a burrito and a gyro from a stand staffed by a Tajik woman and a guy from Syria. Every item offered, from the pieces of shredded chicken to the lettuce and tomatoes, looked cold and old. We each got one out of necessity and lack of choice.

We boarded the marshrutka and rode in the deafening roar of traffic for a good hour before getting  to our destination. Once at the convenience store, we bought cold beer to accompany the sandwiches. I heated up the oven to toast my sandwich in the little saucepan available and once it turned golden brown, Willoughby decided she wanted hers toasted in the same way.

I then filled the tub with water and using the dish washing liquid from the kitchen, finally got to do some laundry. I draped the articles of clothing wherever I could find a hook placing the jeans over a table on the balcony to insure they’d dry faster. I then took a shower and got ready for bed.

I had just gotten into my pajamas when the door bell rang. I recognized Aijana, the daughter we had met that morning, through the peephole and opened the door to find almost the entire family there, Zhirdal, his wife, Aijana and their two-year-old son. They’d come to make sure we liked the flat, had everything we needed and had been able to make our way around the city.

There was no furniture for them to sit, so we just stood around in the kitchen trying to understand each other with a mixture of Russian, Kyrgyz and English. I tried to explain to Aijana that we’d come to the realization that we had paid for three nights, the original plan, until we learned there was no flight to Bishkek on Sunday and we needed to leave Saturday night.

While polite, I firm in telling her that Alexander needed to return 1,000 rubles to us or I’d be keeping the keys forever. Zhirdal gestured to indicate that getting money back from a Russian was simply unseen. I told her I’d take the keys and drop them from the airplane on my way back to Bishkek.

After what seemed like an interminable visit, during which they tried to convince us to move over to their already crowded flat for more comfort, they left not before promising to pick us up on Saturday at nine instead of six to take us to the station so we didn’t have to bother getting out of the flat at such an ungodly hour.
June 19, 2013

I was up at my usual time, five in the morning, and had a chance to drink my coffee and catch up on my email and FB postings before anybody else was up. I still had a throbbing pain in my lower abdomen and back, but fortunately it was bearable.

I charged my cell phone, just in case, and my tablet as well while Willoughby and Irina got ready. I disposed of all food items in my backpack that had gone bad and repacked everything else. We had some photos taken in the garden and finally piled into her car for the drive to the train station. She had been a great hostess, and we felt sad to say goodbye after just two days of knowing her.

We missed the local train by perhaps seconds as Willoughby couldn’t walk fast enough to make it. The next one was supposed to be an express and it was jammed packed with commuters to point of one feeling about to suffocate. Willoughby lucked out when someone offer her a seat in the area intended for the old and the infirm.

I had to tough it out in the area between cars with my backpack jammed between my legs. I could feel the sweat running down my neck and my back. For someone with a mild touch of claustrophobia, no worst scenario could have materialized. We had to go for many, many miles before enough commuters got off the train before I could find a seat.

Once at the train station, we located the room with the lockers. The ones here operate the old fashioned way with an attendant requesting your passport, which he either scans or photocopies, and then he attaches a tag to your backpack and gives you a receipt. We paid 140 rubles or about $4.00 for a day.

It was back to the metro with its never ending escalators. Willoughby miscalculated the number of stops to the Red Square and we got off two stops too soon. Once on the street, I stopped a very handsome young man to ask him how we could go there, and although he spoke very little English, he insisted on getting back on the metro with us, using his own card, and walking us into the square directly. His name was Andrei and he mentioned he had been looking for a job for the last three months.

I was starving by then, so we returned to the Gum department store and tried out another restaurant, which turned out not to be as good as the first one, but which offered latte and cappuccino coffee. On the first floor, there was the most elegant ice cream cart I’ve ever seen with the servers dressed in formal attire to serve you. We each had a scoop of the pistachio one.

We then moved on to the Municipal Museum where to my disappointment, there were no Faberge eggs to be admired. We were told the Hermitage in Saint Peter would be the place to see those. Their collection of gold ornaments on everything from jewelry to household goods was spectacular enough to leave you speechless.

There were countless other museums around the square and we had a difficult choice to make as the entrance fees were quite steep for all of them and we weren’t really familiar with their contents.We noticed long lines, in the sun, just to get the tickets and then more lines, and a security check for the entrance to some of them, and decided on the spot not to bother.

Instead, we walked around the square admiring the fountains, flower beds, statuary and buildings while I practiced using my tablet to take photos after seeing someone doing the same thing the day before. I will never know how it happened, perhaps the stress had gone away, but by mid-afternoon, I was pain free. It felt so exhilarating to be able to walk about without feeling like I was having the worst menstrual cramps ever.

It was time to go back to the train station to retrieve our backpacks, get a bite to eat before boarding the train, and making it to the Leningraski Station across the street. I ordered plov and a small salad and was charged 416.00 rubles or $13.00 for something that would cost me two dollars in Bishkek.

I checked my email and was relieved to learn that Irina had gotten hold of Tatiana’s brother-in-law and confirmed that the apartment rental had been arranged. She supplied detailed instructions on how to get there from the train station in Saint Petersburg as well as the possible cost of a taxi if we chose to take one. People can be really good.

We rode a really old train, the kind I’d always seen in the movies where each compartment has a door and there is a common corridor outside. We had no luck though in exchanging berths for Willoughby as the lower ones were occupied by a young mother with her daughter, about three, and a portly sour-looking grandmother with her three-year-old grandson.

I had started to sniffle and cough earlier in the day probably because of all the smoke from the coal burned during the train ride from Bishkek, the constant smoking in the city, the dust and the seasonal pollen in the air. The young mother spoke some English, so we peppered her with a lot of questions including how to buy some anti-histamine the next day. She offered me some drops from her daughter’s medication as she suffered from the same condition.

It was too crowded in the compartment for all six of us to stay there, so we stood in the corridor watching the city recede from view and then the ever expanding suburbs came into view. Fortunately, Willoughby discovered that there were pull-up stools attached to the wall, so we could sit comfortably and watch the landscape hoping to catch a bit of the “white nights” spectacle we’d heard so much about.

I was only able to stay up until eleven, but even then it was completely light outside. Willoughby had a difficult time getting up to the upper berth, so the young woman recommended that instead of using the regular metal ladder on the side, she should step onto the table and hop from there. Willoughby has had a hip replacement, and thus her mobility is restricted.

The children were still awake while the young mother read to her daughter from a tablet and the little boy played on another electronic device. I put on my ear plugs and fell asleep to the rhythm of the train.
June 18, 2013

Light was streaming in at five in the morning and I got up to make coffee. The dacha is occupied by two cats, a chinchilla and a group of fish in an aquarium tank not counting the fierce-looking Siberian husky dog penned outside. The space was fairly large, but it was purchased originally as a summer cottage, but the family was forced to live in it year round now. It featured a modern kitchen, with a cute dishwasher, and a spacious bathroom.

Irina had offered to drop us off at the metro station on her way to work. I had one of the pieces of pastry I’d purchased in Bishkek and another cup of 3-in-1 coffee while Willoughby got ready. I brought my tablet with me as I had a guidebook to Moscow in it with a reasonably good map of the metro stations. Irina lent us her map of the city as well and had provide us with a local SIM card for my phone so we could call her in case of an emergency.

After asking numerous passersby, and even the Metro police for directions, and finding no one who spoke English, we positioned ourselves by the giant map in front of the ticket booth and mapped out our itinerary. We made it to the Red Square after transferring a couple of time. The metro charges 28 rubles or almost a dollar per ride.

The square was mobbed with people, mostly by ill-dressed tourists from Japan who awkwardly posed in their mismatched outfits and floppy hats. I suggested a break before starting as I really needed a real cup of coffee after almost four days of the instant stuff. We found a sidewalk café directly in front of the Lenin Mausoleum and got a table where we could see all the action.

Our cappuccino and latte ended up costing us about $8.00 a piece, but the setting was so gorgeous, the weather fantastic and the people-watching opportunity unbeatable. Once replenished, we walked to the Saint Basil Cathedral, a place I’d dreamed about visiting for years and years.

There was a line to buy the entrance ticket, but the 400 ruble fee, about $12.50, seemed steep to me. The inside of the church is as gorgeous as the outside and the collection of icons simply superb. I hadn’t read about the first Christians in Russia being labeled “fools for Christ” as they insisted on going around naked and on flagellating themselves to expiate their sins.

I got my brother-in-law the little spoon he likes to collect from different cities and then left the place so we could find a restaurant. We checked the Lenin Mausoleum on the way out, but it was already closed as it only opens between 10:00 and 1:00 pm.

I was eavesdropping on a group of Argentinean tourists when their guide said that the famed Gum department store, right across the square, had a food court on the top floor and offered budget meals for its employees. I had read many times about this store in the books written by Russian writers.

I had a fabulous meal at one of the many restaurants: Italian flat bread sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, lasagna, and roasted green beans with cherry tomatoes. I felt vindicated after all the lousy meals on the train. Willoughby refused to eat anything.

It was back to the metro to find another famous church practically across the city while hoping to have enough time to reach the Pushkin Museum nearby. I took advantage of our numerous change of metro lines to take photos of some of the fantastic artwork that adorns the walls and ceilings of  the metro system.

When we stepped outside, clouds were gathering at this point and we were concerned about another downpour. This church had no admission fee, but an extremely long queue as apparently it’s a local church where people do worship, and not a museum.

No photos were allowed inside and I was stunned by the detailed woodwork, colorful mosaics and expansive chandeliers. Willoughby’s feet had started to hurt quite a bit by then, so we didn’t stay long. Back outside, we found a sign indicating the church had been ransacked and set on fire at some point and had only been restored to its previous condition within the last decade.

Willoughby suggested skipping the Pushkin Museum since we still needed to go back to the main train station and get our tickets for the ride to Saint Petersburg the following night. Once there, we couldn’t even find anyone who could direct us to the proper place to buy the tickets.

After much walking back and forth, I felt terrible for Willoughby, one police officer directed us to the right place. It was rush hour traffic and people were pushing each other to reach their trains and had little time for a foreigner asking for information. We never came across an information booth anywhere in the city, much less at the train station.

We were finally asked by an attendant if we had credit cards because that way, we could purchase our tickets ourselves from one the machines nearby. I tried it first and was furious beyond belief when upon completing the transaction, I was told the credit card company had rejected the charges. I had forgotten to notify them I’d be traveling through Russia.

Another kind woman came to our rescue and helped us select the right train, time and compartment using Willoughby’s credit card. We paid 5,300 rubles each or $166.00. All lower berths had been sold by then, but she reassured Willoughby that other passengers would be willing to trade places with her due to her age. It was 8:30 pm by the time we walked out with our tickets and not before the woman had walked with us to show us where we could leave our backpacks the following morning until our train departure.

We had invited Irina and her family for dinner and she’d initially agreed only to tell us later that she had a date with her boyfriend. She needed us back at the train station by seven if we wanted a ride or we’d need to take a taxi. We settled for the taxi. We stopped by the food court and Willoughby bought a breaded piece of chicken breast while I chose fried fish to take to the house and reheat.

We found a taxi whose driver had a bit of trouble locating the specific house. The fish was dry and flavorless and I could only eat a few bites of it. The pain in my back and abdomen had begun to bother me severely, but I didn’t want to worry Willoughby, so I just went to bed after taking a shower.

I tossed and turned in bed unable to find a comfortable position and feeling the pain getting stronger and stronger. Then panic set in when I realized I hadn’t even bothered to bring my health card with me in case of an emergency. I cried out in pain for the first time contemplating the idea that perhaps I was going through another episode of the shingles.

I told Willoughby what was going on and she wanted to know what she should do, but I really couldn’t think of anything and eventually the pain subsided enough to allow me to fall asleep.
June 17, 2013

I woke up much earlier than I wanted to and found that Willoughby had been quietly knitting at her berth waiting for me to wake so we could drink coffee. She told me two other passengers had boarded our compartment in the middle of the night and upon getting to the upper berths, immediately shut the window.

I consulted Willoughby about tipping Elvira, our waitress, for saving us the hassle of having to walk through six cars to get to the dining car. We agreed on 500 rubles with each one of us sharing one half.

Now that the sleeping portion of the train ride was over, I changed into a long navy blue skirt I had brought with me and sat by the window enjoying the much more pleasant landscape composed mainly of forests. Once in a while, a house made of wood come along and trash could be seen burning at the edge of the town.

By 8:20 am, Elvira hadn’t shown up with our breakfast, so I had no choice but to run the gauntlet of smokers once again only  to find Elvira fast asleep as she had had to stay up late taking care of customers that came to the dining car to drink. She appeared totally exhausted and that made me feel worse. I told her not to worry about it, but she insisted on sending the breakfast as soon as she could.

A young man came with the tray. We were hoping that Elvira would come by to pick it so we could provide her with the tip, but neither one of them ever returned, and I wasn’t about to make that walk again.

The new passengers on the upper berth appeared to be a man and his young daughter. He smoked like a chimney while she played with her cell phone. It started to rain as we approached Moscow and we got into a cavernous train station where we asked for Wi-Fi so I could retrieve Irina’s directions. We were directed to a minuscule food court where I ordered a beer to quench my thirst and obtained the password.

We couldn’t make heads or tails of the train system and didn’t realize the metro and suburban trains run from the same station. I opted for asking a well-dressed woman if she spoke English and to our relief she did. This woman made sure we got on the right train after buying the tickets for us, asked a fellow passenger who was heading in the same direction to let us know where to get off, and called Irina to her let her know we were on our way. Ah, the kindness of strangers.

The ride took fifty minutes and the view outside was mostly that of ugly high rises and advertising billboards. Across the station we stopped, a church was being reconstructed after the Soviet years when it had been turned into a market.

Irina was waiting at the metro station with her young daughter and drove us in her car to her parents’ dacha where after showing us the place, we sat down to eat a bit of fish and rice. She was marinating pork chunks for a barbecue, but wanted to wait for her friend Galina. We sat under the gazebo where the mosquitoes promptly started feasting on me, so when the rain really picked up, Irina suggested going inside to eat and we were more than happy to comply.

Irina’s father was in the hospital for testing related to a kidney condition he’s fighting, and so we didn’t have a chance to meet him. The family seemed very happy with the four jars of jam we’ve brought them along with the bag of dried apricots.

Once the meal was over, Irina took us for a drive around her neighborhood and fortunately the rain stopped long enough to allow me to take a few pictures. I fell asleep on the way back even though I had started feeling a bit of low back pain, something rather unusual for me.

Irina’s city featured wide boulevards, clean streets, orderly traffic and lots of flower beds. It was the beginning of the famed “white nights” and it was still light outside at 11:00 pm.

We were occupying Irina’s daughter’s bedroom, and so I got the top bunk bed.

Monday, June 24, 2013

June 16, 2013

Sun was up at 5:30 and Willoughby was once again up before me. She’d brought a pair of man’s PJs and didn’t mind partially disrobing in front of strangers to change into it. I just slept in my clothes.

Elvira hadn’t come back to pick up the dishes from my lagman and thus hadn’t confirmed that we wanted breakfast again. I waited until 7:20 before making my way again through all six cars to reach the dining car. Everyone was still asleep. I tapped on Elvira’s shoulder and just said we wanted the same egg and fried salami breakfast.

On the way back, observed a train cleaning woman sweep all the trash the smokers were leaving behind right onto the tracks. We went through a fairly large city in Kazakhstan before crossing into Russian territory late in the afternoon.

Again, all border patrol officers wore fatigues and had menacing looks on their faces. We were given immigration forms to complete and the young Uzbek guys above us seemed very nervous. One of them asked Willoughby to hide the purse-like bag he was wearing across his chest.

The officer asked me to remove my reading glasses while he inspected the photo in my passport. We weren’t asked to provide an invitation letter at all. The others performed the same tasks as the Kazaks looking with a mirror behind every bag and having dogs sniffing everything.

After a few minutes, what looked like a policeman in civilian clothes came into the compartment carrying a badge and asking to see our documents again. He spoke a few words of English and left us alone rather quickly.

The Russian landscape offered a bit more greenery to look at and then we started seeing some dilapidated houses with huge vegetable gardens just sprouting. We had changed time zones and it was now two hours earlier than in Bishkek. The sun was fiery and I had to sit next to Willoughby to avoid the heat on my side of the compartment.

Elvira came by to inquire about dinner and since our supplies were running out, we inquired about the options with “fried meat with other kinds of vegetables” sounding like the best one. We got a mess of potato slices covered with oil on top of which a few pieces of fatty sinewy beef had landed adorned by slices of white onions and green onions. A plate of tomato and cucumber slices rounded out the meal.

The food was barely palatable and I didn’t finish it. We each had a piece of chocolate for dessert and returned to our reading as I was determined to finish my book and unload it on Irina once I got to Moscow.

I had just gotten into my deep sleep cycle when the attendant rudely shook my shoulders to ask if I had a Nokia charger he could borrow. I don’t know how he figured I might have one since I hadn’t used it at all the whole time. I had to get up and search for it in my backpack. He promised to bring it back at some point.

I went back to sleep only to be awaken again by the group of Uzbek men who were leaving the train and wanted to say goodbye. They had certainly provided us with some distraction during the dull trip even though we could never figure out why they were going to Russia in the first place as no one spoke English in our car.
June 15, 2013

The bed was relatively comfortable, but we had left the upper window open and it got really cold in the middle of the night. I had to get up to secure a blanket and use the bathroom, which resembled the lavatory in any airplane. The train made many stops and then two men came into our compartments and occupied the upper berths.

When I woke up before six, Willoughby was already up reading from her Kindle. I went to brush my teeth and brought hot water for our coffee. Water is kept hot by burning coal all the time. In fact, the train locomotive ran on coal the entire time and when the wind blew our way, the fumes were unbearable.

I made my way back to the dining car to place our order for breakfast running a gauntlet of smokers at every junction between cars. Once at the dining car, I found that except for one, the other five women were asleep on what seemed like tables turned into beds. Elvira apologized for not remembering we wanted to eat breakfast and promised to come by shortly.

We ordered eggs, fried for me and scrambled for Willoughby, and they came with fried slices of salami,  sliced white onions and green onions for garnish. I accompanied mine with the flat bread and made more coffee for the two of us. Elvira had agreed to bring the food to us instead of having us trek to the dining car.

The second border crossing into Kazakhstan took place in the morning and this time we were told to stay put while the border officers came into the compartment with dogs, mirrors and other devices to look for drugs or other forms of contraband. A young woman brought a laptop that sat upon a scanner and quickly scanned our passports into it.

Our compartment attendant apparently wanted to get some money out of us and kept coming back with large bills wanting us to break it into smaller ones. I claimed to have no money on me since I was carrying all my money in my money belt and wasn't about to show it him, but Willoughby did change some money. When he asked for our passports this morning, he signaled we each owed him two hundred rubles. We asked why and since he couldn't explain it in English apparently gave up in frustration.

The officer asked both of us to look at him directly in the eye as he examined the photos on our passports. I almost broke out in laughter thinking of how ridiculous they looked in their fatigue uniforms and how I failed to be intimidated by their actions. We got the usual stares and questions about traveling alone while not speaking Russian.

There was nothing to look at from our window except for the occasional camel or cemeteries stuck in the middle of nowhere. Two women had come in the middle of the night and were occupying the berths next to the window opposite us. The younger one talked on her cell phone almost nonstop even though I kept glaring in her direction in clear annoyance.

The older woman had brought a veritable store with her and when not sleeping, which she did most of the trip; she served herself many dishes and copious amounts of tea. The two young guys on the upper berths were from Uzbekistan and were apparently traveling with little money and no food. The woman seemed not to mind sharing her supplies with the guys, which was a nice touch to observe.

By mid-afternoon, I was dying to have a nap, but the sun was beating on my side of the compartment and it was a hot as furnace in the compartment.  The air was still with no breeze coming in at all. Clouds moved in and then finally a short shower fell causing the guys on the upper berths to close the window immediately.

Elvira came by to take our order for dinner and only lagman appealed to me. Willoughby had her cheese and apple dinner and we share the last of the baklava for dessert. I read my "Lacuna" book and Willoughby her Anna Karenina while trying to fend the heat building up in the small space.

 The sun didn’t go down until nine and then when I tried to go to sleep, three children under ten decided it was time to play cops and robbers with a plastic gun. None of them were assigned to our compartment, but their parents allowed them to roam the length of the car.

I tried to signal for them not to come into our berth, but to no avail. When 10:25 came around and they were still running up and down, I picked up one of my Teva sandals and threatened to strike their behinds with it. One of the mothers immediately got up and restrained her child. Peace and quiet followed and then I was able to go to sleep.