Friday, December 22, 2006

What am I doing here...

I’m not really sure where I should start. The last 48 hours have been hellish to say the least. Nothing has gone as planned. The really bad news first – I’m still in Moscow. While I love this city, I was expecting to be home by now, enjoying an enormous helping of Mexican food along with a cerveza or two. Alas, things beyond my control have held me. I guess I should take a step back or two and explain things from the beginning.

I finished packing everything up on Thursday morning and Natasha picked me up at the dorm to take me to the airport. The Irkutsk International Airport is quite possibly the smallest international airport I’ve ever flown through. As was the plane – while there are a lot of seats on the Tupolev jets (Aeroflot’s plane of choice), they do so at the expense of both leg room and overhead storage. For the first time ever, my carry-on roller bag (smaller than most “carry-on” size rollers), was deemed to large to take aboard – I think because they weigh even the carry-ons and if they are more than 10 kg, you have to check this. This was particularly bad because I was already extremely overweight on my checked baggage. I misread the guidelines (saw the international ones rather than the domestic) and it turns out that I was only allowed to take 20 kg – over that, and it’s 150 rubles (about $5.50) per kg. I ended up having to pay about $200 dollars to take my baggage (which, incidentally was not overweight when I went to check in for my attempted flight to America on Lufthansa this morning).

As if having to pay the $200 wasn’t bad enough, I had to pay it in cash because they didn’t have a credit card machine. WHAT?! An international airport without a credit card reader?! Yeah, that’s what I thought too. And the balance on my debit card was not enough to cover it. My only option – do a cash advance on my Visa through the currency exchange office. Not only is Citibank going to charge me, but there was a 2% commission as well. Grrrrr. But I did manage to get them the money and get everything settled to get on the flight.

The flight from hell that is. Now, I’ve flown halfway around the world on dozens of planes, but nothing compares to this … experience. I was sitting on the second to last row, right next to a huge oxygen tank. I figured, “Great. If we go down, I’ll be the first to die a fiery death.” It also blocked the view from the window, so my last view of Siberia was from the stairs up into the cabin – and the runway isn’t all that great to look at. I lucked out and didn’t have anyone sitting next to me. Because of the oxygen tank, my my side of the isle only had two seats rather than three, and the other one was occupied by a guitar (there was a group of musicians from Armenia on the flight). Across the isle was this burly manly man, who spent most of the six hour flight drooling over porn, while is trophy wife tried to not pay attention. There weren’t any babies or dogs on the flight, but there was a gentleman who insisted upon smoking in the lavatory – which is a federal offense in Russia as it is in America. And quite unpleasant for the other folks on the plane.

Even though it was not the greatest six hours of my life, I did land safely in Moscow, even a full five minutes ahead of schedule. The next trick was to make my way over to the other airport to drop off my big bags at the luggage storage for the expected flight the next morning. For this I managed to get some help from the Armenian musicians, who insisted that I was too small to carry such big bags myself. While I normally don’t like the whole chauvinistic view of women as incapable of strength, I was glad to find some help – I was tired and I no mood to lug all that around my self. It was, after all, about 55 kilos altogether.

Our plane landed at 3 pm – by the time I swung by the other terminal and made my way through Moscow rush hour to the hostel, it was already 7 oclock. And I was supposed to meet up with a friend at 7.30! Rush, rush, rush, but I got there on time. We ended up having a great time – he knew this cool expat place near Mayakovskaya metro station – about a 15 minute walk from Red Square. After burgers (REAL burgers!) and a couple of beers, we headed that way. I really wanted to see Red Square in the winter time at night. While there wasn’t a big blanket of snow like I wanted (it’s been unseasonably warm in Moscow as well), it was very pretty. The GUM department store was decorated with lights for New Years, and there was a huge (though not real) Christmas tree in the center, in front of which was a skating rink. It was amazingly pretty, and quite calm so late at night.

Maybe staying out so late wasn’t such a good idea when I had to leave for the airport at 4.00, but you only live once, right? I got a couple hours of sleep, and then headed back to Sheremetyevo for what I thought was the last time. About an hour and a half before my flight, I got a disturbing phone call. It was Natasha in the international office in IGLU saying that they had my visa there. WHAT THE HELL?! I don’t know how many times I asked and had them repeat to me that I had everything in order and was ready to leave the country. I don’t understand how people can be so incompetent. Needless to say, I was unable to get on the plane – the passport control man was not very nice about it either. Fortunately, the poor Lufthansa lady who took the brunt of my emotional outpouring was very calm and nice about the situation and helped me change my booking. Unfortunately, there were only two options open to me. You see, there is only one flight daily from Frankfurt (where I connect from Moscow) to Dallas, and it leaves at 10.30 in the morning. So in order to make that, I have to be on the 7 am flight from Moscow. But I needed the visa, which was somewhere in Irkutsk. If it was impossible to get it to me by 7 am tomorrow morning, I’m in the same pickle was today. The alternative – fly home on Christmas day, because the Christmas Eve flight to Dallas was cancelled. There goes all my plans.

I did manage to get everything straight, though things aren’t anywhere near where I’d like them to be. Instead of using DHL or FedEx, they’re sending me my visa with Adam, who is flying through Moscow tomorrow afternoon on his way home. Unfortunately, that means no flight for me tomorrow but a wait until Monday. While their also sending me money for the hostel, it’s still another expense. And at that point, I had about $30 left in my bank account, so I was feeling a bit screwed (luckily my January stipend check got into my account this afternoon, so I don’t have to do another credit card advance now).

Anyway, long story short, I’m having a really bad day. But the only thing I can do is suck it up and try to enjoy spending a few unexpected days in Moscow. At least I have a friend or two here, so I’m not feeling completely isolated. Still, I would rather be sleeping in my own bed tonight. And this better not screw up the New Year’s plans too – I’ve been looking forward to the New Years Dino Hunt for several months.

I have free internet here and I recharged my phone so call or email me if you feel like offering your emotional support (or have an idea of how to get back at the idiots who put me in this mess).

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I saw something that I haven't see for a long time yesterday - a thermometer go ABOVE freezing! That's right - according to my thermometer, it was +2C when I got home from the university. What the heck?! This is Siberia for cryin out loud. It's supposed to be -30 by now. But it's been a beautiful few days so I'm not gonna complain. I just wish we could have had a fresh bit of snow before I have to leave. I'm gonna miss that.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sign here, please...

The only real reason I got out of bed this morning was to get one final signature on my grade sheet. Little did I know that the grade sheet was only the first in a long line of paperwork needed to leave this country. First I had to write a declaration, essential saying, "I wanna go home." Then I had to make a list of all my courses and grades and hours that need to go on my transcript. Then I scheduled my airport transfer. Then I was given yet another slip of paper, this one apparently the most important of all. I have to get a signature from just about every person I've dealt with thus far at the university - and I mean everyone, from the dean of the faculty to the little old lady at the dormitory who gave me my sheets. Geesh. It's a good thing I started packing last night. I'm completely booked right up until the hour I leave (I guess I should have scheduled some time to sleep as well...). I'm going bowling this evening with the Belgians, then I have a party tomorrow night (I even convinced the old lady at the dorm to extend my curfew since it'll be my last night). But for now, I'm off to collect more signatures. Satisfying bureaucrats can be quite an adventure.

And it's all downhill from here...

I mean that in the good sense - as in, I have time for sledding and taking it easy now that I've finished my exams. I may not have gotten a 5 (the highest grade), but I did manage to pass my Morphology exam. Let me say that that was the most terrifying testing experience I've ever had in my life. Russian exams work something like a POW torture session. You are grilled by the instructor and must recite the answers by rote. AAAAAHHHH. I can handle the practical exercises, but reciting the definitions of all the different gramatical terms is just beyond me (I'm not even sure that I could do it in English). Anyway, it's all over and done with now and I am free to enjoy my last few days here. I still have a bunch of stuff that I need to get down but it's all technical paperwork and stuff - nothing that really requires a fully functional brain. I guess that means it's time for happy hour (hey, it's five oclock in Vladivostok - that's close enough).