Tuesday, October 28, 2008

From Russia with love

So on my way to Estonia. I try to avoid mishap. I buy my ticket 2 days in advance for the 7-hour bus ride. I ask the woman who doesn’t speak English to draw a little map to show me exactly where to catch the bus.

Two days later I arrive at 8:45 am. I’m nervous because I don’t see any bus that looks large enough to be mine, but after circling the area twice I see a group of people forming that look too happy to be Russian and sure enough I hear that elfin sing song of Estonian. I see one friendly looking young man with a cello case and ash him “to Estonia?” in Russian and he smiles and nods (Estonians speak Russian for the most part) – having been under Soviet rule until relatively recently). It’s the smile more than the nod that tells me I’m in the right place. It’s already cold but I don’t mind. I’m heading to Estonia to meet my new roommate Kaspar and his family there. I just found a new apartment in Saint Petersburg in remarkable time - 1 day and its across the street from the academy so I won’t be battling the swarms of commuters on the subway each day and will hopefully get some more sleep this year. Things are looking up and it’s actually sunny.

I get on the bus after some confusion with an old lady who doesn’t know where to go, where to sit, where to put her baggage etc. The bus driver is very kind and patient with her and the other passengers are too. I’m shocked but remind myself that these are not Russians. However the bus driver leaves and a new one who is Russian arrives with the familiar dour expression of resignation on his face. I settle into my seat and fall asleep. I awake 2 hours later as we pull into a gas station and suddenly remember 15 years earlier being on a bus in Spain and having the bus leave without me because I spent too long in the bathroom. I hesitate for a moment before deciding to leave the bus to buy something to eat. I follow the bus driver into the small convenience store and get shoved aside by a large gruff man who looks like a little kid who needs to go to the bathroom. He’s sort of hopping around from foot to foot looking feverishly at the baked goods and cutting everyone in line a clumsy rush for first dibs on the coffee. I see another young man sitting to eat his breakfast and figure we have more time than I thought. I decide to but one of each kind of baked goods because it’s a long ride and I can’t figure out what they all are anyway. In the corner of my eye I’m aware that the bus driver has left with a large bottle of water, but I still see the bus and the guy eating so I’m relaxed.

The woman gives me the wrong change and I ask her to check it again and she realizes her mistake and fixes it and I walk out side feeling good about my communication skills.

Adrenaline floods my system as I see a large empty parking spot where my bus used to be. I look left and see the bus pulling away and start running as fast as I can. I do a mental check and realize I have my passport but not my bag. Thank god I didn’t bring my computer. Then I try visualizing myself reaching the bus before it gets back on the highway, but it dawns on me as my legs begin to ache that I’m not going to catch it and suddenly I’m running top speed on the highway’s dirt shoulder screaming and waiving my arms frantically (somehow not dropping any baked goods). I start considering my plight with a useless out of range cell phone and I hear honking behind me but ignore it hoping for some response from the bus. It only accelerates onto the highway and speeds away. The honking continues persistently behind me and I realize I’m probably blocking traffic and risking my life. I look back and see a large black car pull up and the window roll down. The man asks me something in Russian that I think I understand and I say yes that’s my bus. He gestures for me to get in and I do. I catch my breath and he starts speeding up, passing car after car on this bumpy two lane high way that probably hasn’t been repaved since it was created. Despite the billions Russia is making on oil, like the US it’s government is not terribly interested in maintaining infrastructure.
The driver gestures for me to roll down the window and flag down the bus driver. As we pass the bus I see the bus driver’s blasé reaction to my frantic gesturing. He frowns and shrugs and pulls the bus over to the curb. I thank my driver think about offering him money but realize it might offend him. He smiles and I consider trying to tell him he’s an angel, but figure I showed just get to the bus as fast as possible. As I get on people look confused and the young man who was sitting next to me with the cello asks in English where I was and I explain. “Oh I was wondering where you were,” he explains.

As my heart rate returns to normal I remind myself that the man in the black car was Russian too and then promptly devour my flaky baked lunch.

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