Novosibirsk, Russia

One city down, four to go. After spending over a week in the motherland of Russia, I certainly have a lot to share.

I arrived in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia (and third largest in Russia) after flying through Frankfurt and Moscow, both airports aptly suited to handle the weary, jet-lagged drones such as myself that throng through their gates day after day. Happy to see that my luggage arrived in due form, I hailed a taxi to Hotel Sibir, one of the few business-friendly hotels in Novosibirsk proper. Normally I would have explored the hotels various amenities, but I headed straight for the room, eager to plop down on the bed and call it a day.

My room was suite-tastic. A flat-screen TV, shag carpets, robe and slippers, the works. I slept blissfully. The next morning, I bought a map at the hotel gift shop and set to work, plotting the various outlets I would be visiting and navigating my path through Novosibirsk’s city center. The planning didn’t help much, though, as I soon realized that prices are very difficult to collect when virtually no one speaks English. It was (and yikes, still is) humbling to be in a country where it’s so difficult to communicate. As an English speaker, this is a rarity in the world today, yet while I enjoy the challenge, the mystique, the sheer exoticism of another culture’s utterings, getting work done has been difficult. Side note: one of the first English sentences I heard was during the breakfast buffet, when a fellow hotel guest commented on the ambient lounge music accompanying the meal. “They sure like their noise, don’t they?” What is that supposed to mean?

I hired a translator, Irina, who helped me make phone calls, set up realtor appointments, and accompany me to grocery stores and other outlets to help with permission issues. Without her help, I would have been lost. Well, even with her help I was still a little lost, but nearly as lost as I could have been.

The first night that I didn’t sleep through dinner, I elevatored my way down to the hotel restaurant for some easy, stress-free grub. While I munched on duck and spiced apples, a woman turned on speakers and began singing alongside midi-composed tunes in both Russian and heavily accented English. The one other couple in the room had just finished dinner, so unfortunately I was the only one who could appreciate Que Sera Sera in its unique form.

I ran into a man named Anatoli that recognized me from the Moscow flight, and although we both had issues expressing ourselves verbally, smiles and handshakes ensued. He handed me his business card and wrote an address and time on the back, signaling food with his hands. I looked up the word for ‘tonight’ in my dictionary, just to make sure I understood what he was getting at. Later on that night, I took a taxi to his apartment, about 15 minutes outside of the city center, and was greeted by he and his wife, ushered to the table and immediately poured some tea. He grabbed his camera, hooked it up to the TV and started showing me pictures of a trip he and his wife just took to Spain. A few minutes later, his neighbor, a 19 year old girl studying at one of the local universities, dropped by to help translate. It turns out that she, Anatoli, and his wife were trying to get me to join their Amway network. Apparently Amway, a world-wide retail/network marketing company, has a growing market in Russia. I was a bit upset that the hospitality was focused around me signing up right then and there on their computer, but it was still an enjoyable night. When Anatoli and his neighbor dropped me off at the hotel, another funny thing happened. I said goodbye and watched Anatoli walk back towards his car as his neighbor stood there awkwardly. I told Anatoli that there was a misunderstanding, trying politely to decline what I made out to be a pawning-off-of-neighbor-sort-of-situation. I guess he really wanted me in his Amway network?

As I mentioned in the last post, I celebrated my last night in Siberia with a few local beers (which don’t taste nearly as good as the vodka). My suspicions were confirmed when I walked downstairs to check out the “Dance Bar” only to realize that I was the only hotel guest entering a nightly strip club. I’ll spare any further details.

At 4:30am that same morning, I received a premature wake-up call from a taxi driver who wanted to make sure I was still heading to the airport. I flew back to Moscow, switched airlines, then flew to Yekaterinburg, where I am now. A note on airline meals: there is definitely an art to eating them, one that I have not yet developed a skill for. Any tips?

With one full day behind me, I am excited to be in Yekaterinburg, the fifth largest city in Russia, home to more statues that I can keep track of, site of the 1918 execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the last of the Romanov Dynasty. The city has a lot to offer regarding restaurants and night life, and now that I have adjusted to the time change, I plan to explore. In the meantime it’s work work work. Next post to come soon.

Turkmenistan Visa

Or hello in the local vernacular.

It’s my last night in Siberia and I am celebrating accordingly with a selection of Russia’s finest local brewskies. I will post a detailed update in a few hours, when the paperwork is done and I’m nice and lubed up. Before I forget though, I have to share an email I just received.

The background: I still don’t have a Visa for Turkmenistan. A client services rep in Boston has been communicating with our client in Ashgabat to help facilitate the process, but as of yet, I’m still not sure whether I’ll be able to get into the country or not. I have been copied on all the back-and-forth correspondences thusfar, but this email literally had me laughing out of my chair. One of those rare and magical moments that one should treasure.

Cindy:

Akja will email Alan a copy of his Letter of Invitation (LOI) when she receives it.  Alan will need to print it out and bring a copy with him.  Then follow these instructions:

When you get off the airplane in Ashgabat, you’ll walk down the stairs (no jet way). You’ll see two buses. One will be straight ahead the other to the right (it might be a van or a bus). Anyway, at the bottom of the stairs, you’ll see a woman with a clip board. She’s the CIP (Commercial Important Person) representative. She does not understand English, but just tell her your name and she’ll check it on the clip board. Also, there should be a guy collecting CIP passengers’ baggage claim tickets. Give him your ticket. Then get on the CIP bus (the one to the right of the bus that is straight off the plane).

The CIP bus will drop you off at the base of some stairs. Take the stairs to the top. You’ll walk along something that seems like a bit of a jet way. When you get to the terminal building from the little walkway, turn left to the entrance to the CIP area. You’ll enter a room with a few chairs and couches. A Security Guard will be there gathering CIP passengers’ passports. Give him your passport and your LOI and wait in the area you entered until he calls you forward.

When you’re called forward, you’ll see people seated behind glass. Go straight to the person sort of in the middle. He’ll refer you to pay the “bank”, which will be the guy to your right when facing the glass. Have a crisp $100 bill ready plus a twenty (I believe you’ll pay $117 (have $200 ready, just in case). Once you pay, he’ll have you sign some forms. Then you’ll go back to the first guy you saw and the security guard will tell you to proceed to the CIP Lounge area. Once inside the Lounge area, proceed to the counter and pay $30 cash as your CIP fee. Once you pay, she’ll tell you to take a seat. They will serve you some tea, dried fruit and nuts. Wait there until they bring your luggage to the Lounge area. A CIP staffer will bring you your passport, a receipt for the $30 CIP fee, and maybe a couple other forms you’ll need to keep with you. Then take your luggage and walk out of the Lounge area. As you exit the Lounge area, you’ll see some people seated at a counter and to your right you’ll see a luggage scanning machine. Give the people at the counter your passport…get it back from them after they look at it. Then put your luggage on the scanner. You’ll see [client] driver standing on the other side of the scanner. Once you’re on the driver’s side of the scanner, you’re home free.

The driver will walk you out to the street and probably ask you to wait on the sidewalk while he goes to get the car out of the parking lot. It takes about 10 minutes. Once he picks you up, he will take you directly to the hotel.

If possible, bring three passport size photos with you so we can use them when we register you.

If this is confusing, just watch others and imitate.

Have a safe trip !

Chances that this all goes according to plan? Anyone?

St. George’s, Grenada

Greetings from Grenada, an almond-shaped mass of volcanic composition that lies just 100 miles north of Venezuela – so close to Hugo Chávez! Known as the “Spice Isle,” Grenada is the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg and also exports ginger, cloves, cinnamon and a number of other spices. It smells heavenly here.

Since most of my work is done, I am taking the day off to relax on the idyllic Grand Anse beach. This trip has solidified my belief that I am not suited for the sands – my spirit lies in the mountains – but I am certainly enjoying the downtime. The people are lovely, the land is beautiful, and the local Caribbean brew, Carib lager, has a pleasant aftertaste.

No complaints here. Tomorrow I plan to finish work in the early afternoon and will possibly make a few purchases at the local Grand Anse Spice Market. I come home on Tuesday and look forward to moving into a new apartment with a close friend from college and spending some much needed time in Boston.

In the meantime, the sun is setting and I feel like going for a quick jog. See you stateside!

More Kingstown, St. Vincent

I spent Saturday morning collecting prices in the grocery store, and by the time I broke for lunch, most shops had closed their doors for the weekend. I was advised to visit the Saturday market in downtown Kingstown, so I walked a few blocks from lunch and meandered my way through stalls and umbrellas of food and an assortment of goods. Mangoes, bananas, and coconuts seemed to dominate the market, but I saw a few vendors selling bootleg media and small hygienic products. Nothing too out of the ordinary here in St. Vincent.

I joined Allie the economist for a pleasant meal at a hotel down the street, indulging myself with a tasty pan-fried red snapper. While Allie reminisced about growing up in Iran and working for the IMF in D.C., I dodged fish bones and made an impish decision to eat the snapper’s eye. It was chewy.

Sunday morning, I woke up and hopped in an hour-long taxi to the northern part of the island. My plan was to hike up La Soufrière (“sulfur outlet” in French), St. Vincent’s highest point at 4,048 feet, a stratovolcano that last erupted in 1979, thankfully leaving no casualties in its wake.

According to the hotel staff and two of my taxi drivers, I absolutely, positively needed a guide. On paper, the hike did not appear dangerous in the slightest, yet I was warned of raging ganja farmers that may try to take advantage of me. Raging ganja farmers? You’ve got to be kidding me. My ‘guide’ and I trudged through bamboo forest and arrived at the crater rim with no problems whatsoever, but my eyes were constantly scanning the horizon for fiery-eyed lunatics. My summit experience was short-lived, however, as rain clouds crawled over neighboring peaks. As it started to drizzle on the way down, I knew that the party of 4 on its way up wouldn’t be able to see much of anything if they made it to the top. “Dee urlee bird, day eet da best worms!”, my guide happily declared. Below are some short clips of the crater and hike down:

I slept the rest of the afternoon and went down to the ocean for a little swim. I passed out early and awoke this morning refreshed and ready to start another week. Today was pretty standard; wake up, go into town, and write down prices. I had lunch with some family friends that were here visiting their daughter – stationed nearby in the Peace Corps – and it was good to see some familiar faces.

Ooh, I forgot to mention! I usually take the public van into town each morning, but this morning I wasn’t sure where to get dropped off, so I took a taxi. As we drove into town, Andre, my driver, honked at a passing car.

“That’s one of the biggest drug traffickers in St. Vincent.”

“Do you know him or something?”

“Yea, we went to school together. The government just froze all of his assets.”

Thought that was worth noting. I leave for Grenada on Wednesday evening and will post another update there, Internet-connection pending.

Kingstown, St. Vincent

michaelphelpssperm

And Michael Phelps just made history with a seventh gold medal – winning the 100m butterfly by a hundredth of a second. He…is human, right?

##

Work in Jamaica finished up nicely. I spent my last night at the hotel bar, watching Olympic gymnastics and shooting the breeze with an American Airlines pilot. Jack, the seasoned veteran, explained the airlines’ hierarchical system and how he ultimately became a pilot. A handful of drinks later (boy could he pound them down) and he had my full attention, recounting story after story of all the places he has traveled. He made sure to point out that the alcohol would wear off before his next flight. Funny guy.

Thursday morning I made a few final phone calls, wrapped up paperwork in Kingston and called my favorite cab driver for a quick shuttle to the airport. My plane to St. Vincent, connecting in Barbados, was a bit delayed, so by the time I landed, it was almost 11pm. Fatigued from nearly a day of travel, I went straight to my room, took a cold shower and proceeded to sleep like a log.

Today I woke up to rays of sun streaking through the window, slanted shafts of haze beckoning me to a glistening ocean rife with activity. With the weekend on the horizon, I sought to crank out a big day of work. After hitching a van ride into town with a crowded mass of squeezed locals, bouncing to the loud puntz puntz of Caribbean hip hop, I darted around rapidly and opportunistically from store to store, writing down gas and phone and washing machine prices like the fiend surveyor that I am adapting to be. It was exhausting.

During dinner I met Allie, a retired IMF employee who now spends his time teaching a world economics course for a Professional MBA program in D.C. and consulting for governmental bodies in the Caribbean. Hopefully, after a half day of work – most shops close Saturday afternoon – I can hit the beach and join him and his friend for dinner at one of Kingstown’s nicest restaurants, French Veranda.

Life on the road has been invigorating, unpredictable, and thus far satisfying, a mélange of tales that I am excited to share.

(photo credit: Patrick Moberg)