Sunday, July 3, 2011

Getting Comfortable in Vladivostok

It's near the end of our sixth day in Vladivostok and we're starting to settle in.  After the Aussies left an Englishman, Tim, showed up at the hostel.  I can't remember who, but someone was telling me that it takes a certain disposition to travel overland to remote places.  I'm discovering that I am very fond of this disposition.  Tim was a couple of years older than us and taught middle and high schoolers at a special needs school in the UK.  When the (conservative) government cut funding for his school he packed up, flew to St. Petersburg, and hopped on a train bound for Vlad.  A few days after Tim arrived, we came back from the city to find a Suzuki V-Strom motorcycle parked in front of the hostel.  Another Englishman, James, had just pulled in from  London.  He is taking our ferry to Japan where he's shipping his bike to L.A.  Then to the East Coast and back to London.  James and I stayed up until 5am Friday night with Tim to see him off for a bus to China.  I think we hit every "big" subject in existence.  Religion, politics, education, philosophy, quantum physics, the big bang, branching universe theory, the likelihood that aliens exist, etc.  Tim and James called it travelers' talk.  I guess it was my first travelers' pow-wow.  I felt like I was on the plains in the wild west, swapping stories with a Texas Ranger and a fur trader around a campfire.  (I just watched True Grit).  The conversation was not normal for me.  In the U.S. a conversation like this one would have been outside of my comfort zone with relative strangers.  Here, in Vladivostok, it wasn't.  I think that there is an instant bond between travelers.  It feels odd to call myself a "traveler."  I'm not sure that I've earned it yet.  Maybe once we make it to St. Petersburg I'll have become a traveler.  



Forgot to mention: James is riding around the world to raise money for War Child, "a family of independent humanitarian organisations which work together to help children and young people affected by armed conflict." 

All the days here are starting to blur together.  Sometime last week, maybe the night after we were toured around the city by Natalia and Liza, one of our hosts at the hostel said "rock bar.  You come?"  We said yes and followed Max, Tim, and a middle-aged Finish guy named Markov to an underground rock and roll bar downtown.  We had a couple rounds of beer then started on the vodka shots.  Finally, vodka in Russia!  I was a little disappointed that Max, the only Russian in our group, stopped taking shots after our second but whatever.  It was stupid of me to think that all Russians loved to drink themselves into the ground every night with vodka.  

The next morning, let's call it Thursday, I called Yuri, the best fixer in Vlad (apparently).  Yuri's English is okay.  He looks and sounds exactly like what you would think a Russian who "fixes" problems at the port would look like.  Chest hair popping out of his too-far-buttoned-down-shirt and a thick gold chain tangled in with the hair.  He doesn't use any pronouns and says every word like he means it.  Our meeting later that afternoon was very concise:  

"Hello, I am Yuri"
..."Do you have documents?"
..."Ship unloads today.  We wait for Monday.  I will go to port with documents.  Tuesday you can leave with car, maybe."
..."I am friends with head officer at customs so shouldn't be problems."  
..."I call you Monday, dosvedanya."  

He spoke forcefully but had an air of trustworthiness and didn't ask for cash upfront for his services.  I liked him.  

Friday morning I got a call out of the blue from Yuri.  I couldn't understand much.  Something about buying insurance with someone else and I should come.  He's pick me up at 2:45 at the hostel.  Richard and Ezra left to track down some of our missing packages at the post office and I waited.  At 2:45 the phone rang at the hostel.  Max answered and I heard "Jack."  It must be Yuri buzzing in from the entrance to our building.  A minute later a girl in her early-twenties walked through the door.  "Hi I'm Svetlana.  Are you Jack...  It's nice to meet you.  I work with Yuri.  Are you ready to leave?"  Perfect English.  

Svetlana is in her second to last year of college and works part time as an English and German translator, usually for Yuri.  We jumped into her late nineties Toyota Corolla and sped off to the city center.  I still didn't know exactly what was going on but I felt like Svetlana expected me to know so I didn't ask.  I also didn't have time to ask on the drive because I was too focused on praying that we wouldn't crash.  There aren't many rules for driving in Vladivostok and Svetlana seemed to ignore those anyway.  We passed cars and busses on the right and left swerving into oncoming traffic during rush hour.  Once when we were passing a bus and were face to face with another car Svetlana decided to pull left into the second lane of oncoming traffic instead of tucking back in behind the bus.  We probably had a closing speed of 55mph with the other car.  But we made it safely.  

Insurance was a relatively simple process.  There were three groups of us meeting with an insurance agent in a hotel lobby.  All clients of Yuri.  There were two 50 - 60 year old English guys riding BMW GS 1200s back to the UK from the U.S. and a family group of five Australians driving two Toyota pickups to the UK.  We sat in a big circle in the lobby and went through the process one-by-one.  I went last and figured out that the premium was derived mostly from the power level of the car.  I bumped ours down from 250hp to 210hp to save some money.  In hindsight I should have undervalued it even more as the insurance broker was extremely surprised that a Forester had that much power.  I don't think it would have been a big deal.  When Ezra, Richard and our Russian friend Oleg were at the post office they had to forge my signature to pick up a package sent to me.  They each practiced a few times in front of the postal worker.  In the end the postal worker decided who could forge it best and had Oleg sign all the necessary documents.  That's the Siberia that I was expecting.  

We now have insurance, half the car parts that were shipped to us, and possibly new visas (more info on Tuesday).  Oh, and Igor (our orthodontist friend) has Ezra's Kindle.  He got it in the mail at the same time as some CDs he ordered from Amazon and thought it was confused.  He thought Amazon sent it to him as a gift!  Sorry Igor...

Long post without many pictures.  Thanks for making it all the way through.  Here's a little treat from a night drinking vodka at the hostel: 

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