Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Russia: My Venture Beyond the Ordinary

Before I start writing about Russia, I want to explain my writing briefly: I know a lot of people reading this are prospective SASers, so I am trying to incorporate information that you might find useful. I just want to give you a heads-up that details such as hours, prices, and policies may not be exactly the same for my trip as they are for yours so please understand that every last detail might not be accurate. I have already received Facebook messages from future SASers asking about these kinds of things. I would love to answer all of your questions. At some point later in the trip, I will make a blog addressing FAQ's. Hope this helps!

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It’s already Monday night. I can’t believe how quickly this summer is flying by. Tomorrow morning, we will be in Denmark and I’m still trying to gather my thoughts from Russia.

In short, there wasn’t a minute I spent in Russia I didn’t like.

Before departing for SAS, I was most looking forward to Norway and Greece. Norway because I don’t know anyone who has been there so to me, it was kind of exotic, and Greece because I have always wanted to see it. I thought that Turkey would win the “most underrated” award, because Istanbul seems like it has potential to be a really cool port city despite my not knowing much about it.

But I don’t think anything could top Russia. In fact, I think it would be near impossible to have a better time anywhere else. I didn’t really know what to expect. I think that’s part of the reason why I had such an amazing time. When I went to Norway, I had a preconceived notion of just what it would generally be like, and in many ways I was disappointed that it didn’t really match up to what I was expecting. For Russia, I didn’t have anything in mind; I approached it with a blank slate. It’s hard to do, but there was so much other stuff on my mind, I didn’t have time to sit around and think about what Russia would be like. From now on, I’m going to just take things as they are.

I think all of us on SAS are having issues being able to just accept a country for what it is, myself included. Because most of us are American and have always lived in the States, it’s natural for us to compare and contrast every aspect of other cultures with our own (or lack thereof), subconsciously or not. But I don’t want to leave SAS having some sort of list of what ways each country is similar and different to the USA, I want to have an idea of what it means to be Norwegian, Russian, etc.

Wow... already rambling aimlessly and haven’t even started discussing Russia yet. So...

Tuesday, July 1
After our port debriefing, we were dismissed by sea. In Russia, we had to carry around our passports with us which was a pain. So the process of signing out our passports took a while. Originally, all students were to be dismissed, then lifelong learners, and then faculty/staff. I guess some lifelong learners weren’t pleased with this (this seems to be a common trend... many of them are writing official complaints to Semester at Sea regarding their daytrip to Moscow. But it really wasn’t anything SAS had control over. I’ll get to that later). So, they ended up dismissing 2 seas, then the lifelong learners, and then called the remaining seas. I am in the Yellow Sea which was the last to be called. We were asked to go up to the faculty lounge (which we otherwise aren’t allowed in) where we signed out our passports. It was a very organized process- they even had tape lines on the floor resembling a racetrack with different lanes to go in according to student ID #. They asked that all students retrieve their passport at that time regardless of whether or not they planned to get off of the ship immediately. This was easier in theory than in practice- of 583 college students, it is pretty unrealistic that they will all be awake at 9:30 a.m. on a day we don’t have class. Anyways, I got my passport and headed off of the ship to find... a really, really, really long line.

We knew that we would have to go through immigration upon our first entry into Russia, but nobody knew the process would have been so time-consuming. I had a field program trip which was to meet at 12:30 by the buses (which are always parked in a really obvious place right near the ship). We were told by The Voice (I don’t know who it belongs to, but this is the man that does all of the shipboard announcements, pages people, and tells us whether we have to turn our clocks ahead or back or whatever every night) that if we had a field program leaving at 12:30, to make sure we were off of the ship by 11:30 to make it through passport control on time. I got off the ship at about 11:10 since I was one of the last students dismissed. I saw my friends Jeff and Ryan (two of the guys from our late-night hiking excursion on Mt. Floien in Norway) in line and stood with them. One of my professors, Bill Wilkerson, was right behind us so we talked for a good hour and a half before we finally made it up to passport control. Every single time we came to and left the ship, we had to go through passport control. Basically, it was a little building on the pier, and then there was a bridge connecting the building to the mainland. The first time, it was awful because there were only two people working and over six hundred SASers needing to get through security. I got through passport control just before 1, and got on the 3rd of 5 buses leaving for my program: the city orientation via the Neva River. Shortly after getting on the bus we left and got a short tour of the city. We stopped at a few places to take photos and our tour guide was very friendly and spoke English quite well. Then we stopped at a souvenir store and... much to everyone’s surprise/delight, the store was offering very small samples of free vodka! So, of course, we all tried a sample. A few students bought some souvenir items and then we got back on the bus and headed to the dock alongside the Neva River. There were two boats docked side by side, the first of which was already full, so we got on the second boat. After about another half hour, the last two buses showed up and the students from them got on our boat. Unfortunately for them, they did not get a chance to stop at any of the places we stopped at since they had to wait so long at the pier for everyone to get through passport control. The tour just went up and down the Neva River. After the boat ride we got back on our respective buses for a continued tour. However, many students were concerned about making it back to the ship in time to get ready for the ballet, so the bus headed back to the dock. We had plenty of time but rush hour traffic in St. Petersburg is pretty bad, and after having a day that got off to a very late start we all just wanted to play on the safe side.

Tuesday night we boarded our buses on time and got to the Mariinsky theater on time. I was expecting it to be this really gigantic, grandiose theater. It was fancy and pretty big but nothing close to what you find on Broadway. I am not a big theater buff, but the ballet was really fun. It was nice to spend a night doing something out of the ordinary. There is no question that this is a culture that takes ballet seriously.

We got back to the ship around 11. Within close walking distance of our ship, there was a bar -all outdoors- right next to the ship, then an indoor bar across the street. Maybe ¼ mile down the street there was a little place called Café Geo, and across from that there was an outdoor café/bar with a second floor which was a cool place to just sit and watch the river. This is where I went the first night with some friends. A ton of SASers were there just sitting around and talking. Many were interacting with the locals, a few of whom spoke a bit of English. A lot of us were pretty exhausted after a stressful day and headed back to the ship as the sun was setting (which was around 12:45).

Wednesday, July 2
Wednesday in Russia was my day to just hang out and do whatever. Luckily, I have a really keen sense of direction. I just have to look at a map once and then I can always know where I am and which direction I’m heading in. My friend Alison and I walked from the ship to a big park not too far away where we just sat and wrote in our journals for a few minutes. Here’s what I wrote:

* I’m sitting in a park in St. Petersburg - the one with the famous horse statue. Ali and I would both rather enjoy our time as we would if we lived here, so we decided to just come here and hang out for a while. It seems that a lot of local people spend their free time here. I want to experience what it is to be Russian, not what it is to see St. Petersburg as a tourist. In finance, it is often said that great rewards are only derived from great risk. I feel the same goes for everyday life. It is hard to study abroad - to fly across the ocean and plant yourself in a new place and discover a new life. It is harder to sail across the ocean with a group of college students you have never met before to not one but eight different places, and discover eight new lives. You don’t know the language or the culture or how to get anywhere, but taking this risk is the adventure of a lifetime.

It would be easy to be a tourist, but while you may witness culture, you don’t experience it. Semester at Sea lets you see the world without being a tourist. I want to forsake the ordinary - to not watch people in our different port countries as if they were animals at the zoo, but to venture beyond what you can learn and see in the pages of a National Geographic. To hear the casual conversations between street vendors, smell the cigarette smoke and diesel fuel and perfume of old women passing by, and above all else to see - not to simply watch, but to see - the world through different eyes.* I think that really sums up my whole take on what I’d like to get out of my SAS experience.

Ali and I wandered around Nevsky Prospekt (the main shopping street in St. Petersburg) for a while and found a cute little restaurant where we got lunch before taking some pictures in front of the Church of Spilled Blood and perusing a little market right behind it where Ali bought a few souvenirs. After stopping at a bookstore for a few postcards we headed back to the ship to unwind for a few hours. I spent Wednesday night walking around St. Petersburg with Derrick, who I had just met the day before. I know it’s weird but I love spending time with people I don’t already know. I have yet to meet someone I dislike, and by the end of SAS I think I’ll know just about everyone on the ship.

We actually walked right by a Russian military base which was a little creepy but I think it was obsolete. After running into some other SASers on Nevsky, we made it back across the bridge just before 1 a.m. It was cool to watch the bridge go up, it is part of Russia’s white nights celebration. We stopped in one of the café/bars on the way back to the ship because we saw a lot of SAS kids through the window. I met so many people that night, even though we didn’t stay there long.

A lot of kids did a one-day trip to Moscow on Wednesday, which ended up being super chaotic and disorganized due to circumstances outside of SAS control. The traffic in Moscow was ridiculous and some students even saw a man fall off of a billboard and die as he was changing the advertisement on it, and then remarked on how people seemed to not even care and just stepped over him on the sidewalk. I think Moscow would have been a fascinating city to see, and maybe I will make it there someday, but we only had five days in Russia and I am glad I used them the way I did. One of my best friends from Cornell grew up outside of Moscow and told me just to stay in St. Petersburg because it is a more interesting place to spend such a short amount of time, so I took his advice and I’m glad I did.

Thursday, July 3
On Thursday, I got up at 7 to be outside at 8 a.m. for my SAS field program, the Palaces and Owners tour. The bus ride was about an hour to Catherine the Great’s palace. I would go into detail explaining it but I’m sure there will eventually be pictures posted to the website. The palace was almost nauseatingly opulent- every doorway was embedded in gold. Catherine the Great certainly lived a lifestyle with no room for modesty. It was an interesting tour, but I wish the tour guide had given us more of a historical background and context and less detail about where all of the stuff in the different rooms had come from. Next, we stopped at Pavlovsk, the palace of Paul the first. It wasn’t as remarkable as the first palace but it was still interesting. I definitely thought this was a worthwhile SAS trip since those places would have been hard to get to independently, not to mention you would be without a tour guide. After getting back to the ship around 1:30, we grabbed a quick lunch and most students, including myself, took a muchly needed nap. Later that day I ended up just hanging out with a bunch of other SAS kids in the areas surrounding the ship. I met another Lisa too! Our ship was docked on Vasilevsky island, and the bridges that connected it to the island where most of the nightlife was went up every night from 1 a.m. to something like 5 a.m. They came down again for a half hour around 3, but for me, it didn’t seem worth it to get all the way to a fancy club downtown and risk not being able to get back across the bridge at a reasonable hour. So, I spent all 4 evenings in Russia just hanging out at the places near the ship but I don’t feel like I missed much.

Friday, July 4
I woke up at 6 a.m. on Friday to catch my 7 a.m. departure to Novgorod. There weren’t many students on this trip- maybe 25 or 30 college students and 10 or so lifelong learners, and then the nurse and her two kids along with a handful of faculty/staff. I LOVED this SAS trip, because it was small enough where we didn’t have to wait forever to do everything as you need to with large groups, and because it was so out-of-the-ordinary. There was one large bus and one smaller bus. I was on the smaller bus, since I chose to do this trip for fun. The large bus was for students who were doing this trip as an FDP for professor Silver’s class. The bus ride was three hours to Novgorod, and we all slept most of the way there. We had a very talkative tour guide- it was nice that she was so excited, but 6 a.m. and college do not generally mix well. Most of us - faculty and lifelong learners included- would have preferred to sleep rather than listen to her lecture on the different materials used to build apartment complexes since world war two. We got to Novgorod RIGHT on schedule at 10 a.m. While we waited for our new tour guide who knew more about Novgorod, we spent a half hour shopping at a little souvenir market. Then we headed to see some chapels and monasteries- one of which was built in 1119. When we were waiting outside of it, there was a random stray cat that came over and sat right on Charles’ feet and proceeded to roll around on him. I have a video of it- it was really funny at the time, I guess you had to be there.

Next we headed to a replica of a medieval Novgorodian village. It was cool to see because for Global Studies, I watched the movie Alexander Nevsky and it was based in Novgorod- the houses I saw there looked exactly like the ones from the film. I think that the students who did this SAS trip were really privileged to see how the rest of Russia lives currently and how they lived hundreds of years ago- something which students who just stayed in St. Petersburg didn’t get a chance to see. After this, we headed to the hotel where we had traditional Russian cuisine for lunch, and I think we all appreciated it. Then it was onto the rest of the tour, we saw a few more chapels and then got a tour of the Kremlin. In the middle of it, there was a statue that depicted all of Russia’s history and it was pretty remarkable. Every figure on it was important to Russia’s history or symbolic of religion in some way and it would have taken days to understand the entire thing. After an hour or so of free time, we headed back to the bus for our three hour ride back to St. Petersburg. We were originally going to stop somewhere on the way back for dinner but at the request of the students we headed directly back to the ship, and got in around 8 p.m. These were by far the most bumpy roads I’ve ever been on. We all felt pretty shaken up by the time we got back to the ship. On the trip to Novgorod, I met a lot of really cool people. Two girls, Heidi and Hannah, and I went out together later Friday evening (by “out” I mean we left the ship.... I don’t think we left sight of it all evening). Hannah met up with some other friends but Heidi and I sat alongside the river and watched fireworks. The fireworks weren’t spectacular, but what was amazing was that we could still appreciate American freedom and celebrate the fourth of July even in a country with whom the U.S. has had such a checkered past.

Saturday, July 5
On Saturday morning I went to the Hermitage with Ann and Alyssa. We waited in line for about an hour. While we were there, a man overheard us speaking in English and started talking to us. As it turns out, he speaks five languages and works as a translator for the Swiss government. He is probably in his late 60’s and lives half the year in Switzerland and the other half in Turkey. It was awesome to run into someone who is from one of the cities we are going to! We got some great advice about what to see and do in Istanbul and he gave us his business card, so I will probably shoot him an email one of these days when I have a better idea of what I will be doing in Turkey. He seemed like one of those people that has lived an amazing and adventurous life and I would love to hear more of whatever he has to say.

Anyways, the hermitage was ENORMOUS. I’m not an art buff so I wasn’t head over heels for it but it’s still a must-see in St. Petersburg. It was Ann’s 5th time there so she was like our own personal tour guide. Also to note: admission is free for college students, and supposedly if you spent one minute looking at each picture in the Hermitage, it would take several years to get out. After the Hermitage, Ann and Alyssa headed back to the ship but I conveniently ran into Heidi and Hannah- such a strange coincidence in a city of 5 million people. Hannah wanted to buy a book about St. Petersburg so while we were in the bookstore I talked to one of the employees who spoke English (a rare find in Russia). She had just gotten her masters degree in linguistics and makes the equivalent of $625 per MONTH, working full-time. This is why it is important to consider how much people earn in different countries- it’s easy for us to call Norway expensive, but for the kid making $24 per hour scooping ice cream, it’s a much more affordable place to be than Russia.

Later, we took a tour of the church of spilled blood, and then decided to go further back into the city and found some amazing streets jam-packed with restaurants and stores and clubs that we wished we had found sooner.

Then I got pickpocketed. In broad daylight. Hannah and Heidi and I were just minding our business just walking down the street and before I know it I feel a hand in my jacket pocket!!! Unfortunately for the pickpocketer, there was nothing in my jacket because after hearing about 48 million warnings from semester at sea, I kept my passport and other important things in my messenger bag which zips across the top so pickpocketers can’t get in it. So there’s proof, kids, that you are not invincible. That doesn’t mean bad things will happen to you, just stay alert, keep your valuable items out of sight and not in your pockets, don’t ask for trouble and you’ll be fine. It really wasn’t a big deal, the guy just kept on walking past with his other friend. Petty theft is really common in Europe but violent crime is quite rare.

Anyways, we decided to take the metro back since we were quite far from the ship. It was a challenge to navigate the metro system since we don’t understand their alphabet, but we were able to do it by counting the letters of the stop we needed and comparing it to the number of letters of the words on the different signs. I had a map of the metro system so I could just point where we needed to go at the ticket desk. We got back to Vasilevsky island and found that even something as simple as taking the metro can be an exhausting but really rewarding experience. After spending the rest of our rubles on coffee (which was, by the way, the best coffee we ever had), we finally headed back to the ship to recharge for two short days before Denmark.

2 comments:

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