|Adios, Russia (a pean to the mundane woes of the traveler)
||[Nov. 16th, 2007|10:16 am]
Moscow mostly sucked. I'm sure I need to give it another chance, but this trip was essentially a bomb. Yeah, I walked through Red Square and went out a number of times -- going to a gay club in Moscow was a riot, I tell ya -- but basically I was overwhelmed by logistics the whole time. Sometimes travel is like that.
Until I arrived at Deric's place, where I got my very own key, I had to leave in the morning with my couchsurfing host and come back when he came back. Unfortunately, it turned out to be unseasonably cold for Moscow in November, -5c or so plus wind, and I really didn't want to be outdoors. This left me with really nowhere to be during the day that didn't cost massive amounts of money just to exist. There are cafes everywhere, but a cup of coffee in Moscow is $5, or a quarter of my daily travel budget. Tea is almost as much. Or you can buy hot chocolate for the same price, which is the thick Russian kind served with a spoon, almost like a hot pudding, admittedly good stuff.
There was especially drama at Dima's place, since he tended to work really late and he was indifferent to my existence. True, I had a neat argument about global warming with him (writing on that topic forthcoming) but I ended up in a urine-smelling post-communist hallway at one in the morning, waiting for him. I don't want to talk about it.
There was especially drama at the Indian Embassy in Moscow. Problem the first: normal working time for issuing a visa to non-Russian nationals is 10 working days. Well ok, 7 working days just for you. Of course Friday is Diwali, then the Prime Minister is visiting on Monday Tuesday, so that's really, what, four working days until you leave the country. I didn't have the right papers that morning anyway; needed passport photocopies, photos, and a hotel booking fax . What the fuck? It's India, man, you just walk down the street and someone will offer you a guesthouse. Ok, fine. But you see, my visa expires next Friday -- is there really no way to do it sooner? Well, you can do it through a tour agency. And indeed, most of the hordes crowding the visa window, which never opened on time, were Russian travel agents with stacks of red passports rubber-banded to stacks of application forms.
Well fuck. I came back the next day, stood in the long line again, got lucky enough to talk to someone else. Okay, look, we'll take your application and your money. 2180 rubles -- almost $100. No guarantees. Come back on Wednesday next week to talk to the consular secretary, Mr. "Dixie." (I'm sure that's not his name but that's what it sounded like.)
Aside: getting a budget Indian guesthouse to fax you a confirmation letter is a trick. Lets just say lots of bad Skype connections and lots of reluctant clerks: faxes cost money, and also they're work, and then add in the usual third-world inefficiencies, and, well, lies. ("Yes sir, we'll do that. Tomorrow.") Several hours later, I finally found a hotel which seemed both cheap and reliable. Of course, I don't have a fax machine, but that's what the internet is for, via various fax-to-email services. Actually, it's pretty amazing that I was able to get this letter for essentially zero money just with my laptop and stolen wifi. Something that you would not have been able to do before. The approved route is to book some five star shithole through a scam of a tourist agency; it could have cost me hundreds of dollars for this piece of paper. It was supposed to, I think.
Fax in hand, I went back Wednesday, stood in line to ask for Mr. Dixie. "This is not a matter for Mr. Dixie!" yelled the clerk. "Do you have your receipt?" God damnit, I did not, how stupid of me. "Come back tonight, 5-6." I came back, now on my fourth visit to the embassy. Each time walking through the wind. Snow now too. Back in the evening, early to be the first in line, to find that there's not even any line as such! Just people milling around the window while a horrible ancient Russian hag with a frizzy blonde afro called out the names of the tour operators and handed their stacks of passports back. Of course, my passport would not be in there -- in fact I was still holding it, had to, the police in the Metro here sometimes ask for it. So I snagged one of the consular officers as he was walking by, and explained my situation. He seemed sympathetic. He took my receipt and passport and disappeared for a minute behind that thick no access wooden door. Reappearing, he told me to come back tomorrow 5-6, he said. And ask for who? Me, Rajeev.
Well at least I had a name now. Five pm again, yesterday, Thursday, the day before my Russian visa expiration and my flight. Again the crowd. Knocked on the door and an employee sittng nearby (a guard? but not always there) asked me what I wanted. "I was told to ask for Mr. Rajeev." Wait, is all he said. I waited. He left. I knocked again at 5:30. No answer. I opened the door. "Is Mr. Rajeev here?" I asked the first person I saw. "Just wait!"
Finally Rajeev walked by and I met his eye. blah blah blah I'm tired and I realize this is going to be very boring to read, because I am capturing the events but not the emotion. Well I was freaking the fuck out, okay? No Indian visa would screw all my travel plans badly. Best case, I would have to stay in Dubai, an expensive place, for 10 working days to get one there. I'd lose even more money changing my Air India flight. So that final night I was physically shaking. I had to work to control my voice. In fact this visa crap was pressing on my constantly the entire time I was in Moscow. Fighting my way upstream through a bureaucracy, and an overloaded one at that.
And now it seems like it might have been a good idea to get my visa in Dubai anyway, because when they finally called me in, despite continually asking and reminding them of what I needed all through the process, I got a three month visa. Fuck. Three months! "Is there any way to get six months?" I asked as I finally stood before Mr. Dixie, who stood there signing the visa in my passport. "Next time," he said. "One of the clerks told me I could just pay more money," I offered. "We cannot accept more money."
Every other Indian embassy in the world issues six month tourist visas. Fucking Moscow embassy deals with sour Russians all the time, lives in winter, has just gotten itself all miserable and closed down tight. That's my theory anyway. I guess I should be pleased that I got a visa at all given the time issues, but I'm not. I'm angry at myself for letting it turn out this way. I feel like I was overly meek. I feel like I needed to make my intentions known more forcefully.
Then there was the business with registration. More government bureaucracy, this time Russian. All foreigners need register themselves with the local authorities whenever they arrive in a new city. Not too difficult, I guess, but more paperwork. I had to go once, find the hidden office in the back hallway of some back building (more walking around in the freezing cold) and then I needed proof of my arrival date so I had to email them a photo of my train ticket, then come back later to pick the thing up. You have to carry the registration form around with you in your passport, or the police can fine you. Those would be the police posted in the metro, and everywhere else generally. They look very Russian, with long green coats with gold buttons and those round hats. I have no idea what they're looking for with these random ID checks. Undesirables?
Finally, a post office run. In my experience dealing with a foreign post office always takes at least an hour and a half. Finding it, buying a box, packing, dealing with the usually non-English speaking clerks... The Russian post office was even more complex, of course. Books have to go in a separate package from everything else. Again, WTF?
Did I mention the cold? At least it snowed a few days ago. For one night everything was covered in beautiful white. Now it's just slushy brown, yet just as cold. I hate winter.
As I said, I'm sure Moscow could be a great time, but it really wasn't for me. I wish I'd had more interactions with the locals, I wish I spoke more Russian, I wish I'd gone out more, and above all I wish it was warmer. I'm going to get on a plane to Dubai now, where I will buy memory and a new battery for my laptop, then continue to Bombay on Tuesday where it is currently 33 degrees celcius. I will sell my winter jacket to a street vendor and go drink a lassi on the beach.