Friday, June 28, 2013

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.

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