Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ulyanovsk to Moscow Train Trip and Reflections

36 hours overnight. Compartment of 4.  Bunks. Towel, sheets, blanket, pillow provided.  Comfortable.  Each cabin in the train car had storage and a fixed half table for sitting up. Clean windows, great view. Altogether the train was clean and efficient.
 “Train is the way to travel in Russia. This is my seventh time taking this train too.”  said Barrett. Each car had a clean and spacious toilet, all stainless steel. As well there was a hot water samovar in each car so people could make their own tea. There was a diner in this train as there was in the last one we were on.
When we arrived at the train station it was a hub of chaos as these are.  I always ensure my wallet and passport are in a zippered pocket.  Never leave bags of course and be vigilant. It’s very hard in the crushes of people though. Nice to be with another and thereby watch each others back and stuff.
A whole train car of soldiers was embarking with all their families and loved ones seeing them off.  Barrett had said good bye to her family in the train station. She says it's so kind all the generosity family and friends show her. She didn't want them to wait longer at the station though she knows it's the Russian way to give great importance to departures. The young soldiers and their loved ones were certainly having a very passionate Russian parting.
A group of musicians from Argentina were on our car.  Barrett, who speaks Spanish, and  who’d done a law locum in Argentina,was, ironically, asked by the conductor to speak to them because they couldn’t use the toilet.  She laughed.  Here she was an American being asked by a Russian conductor to speak to an Argentinian.  “Maybe she thinks all foreigners speak foreigner.”  As it was Barett enjoyed explaining to the Argentinians that the toilets are closed in the city and don’t open till we’re moving through the country.
She went right  to bed in the upper bunk but continued to communicate down to us from her comfy loft.   I was sitting with a pleasant young Russian who wanted to know about the orthodox icons we wore on our necks.  He’d become an Othodox Christian because of a famous monk in a nearby monastery.  Barrett’s brother in law Vlad had spoken about a similar monk and I wondered if they were the same.  Barrett explained as best she could I was Anglo Catholic (Anglican) and she was atheist.
The young man apparently said, the difference was that the Orthodox expect to go to Jesus whereas in the west they expect Jesus to come to them.  So I said, “Jesus is here.  Where two or more are gathered in his name, there to is He.”  Barrett translated this and the man nodding, laughed. “They have the same saying, here, “ She then said.  “Why must there be two or more?” she asked. I couldn’t resist, “Aetheists can be alone but we say,  you can’t be married alone, and you can’t be a Christian alone.  It’s a buddy system”.
We’d been meaning to asked about moose in Russia.  So Barrett asked now.  He didn’t know of any such creature locally though thought there might be some in Siberia. Later I’d see 3 young red fox.  I told him. He thought they might be ‘wild dogs or coyote’ but I was certain they were red fox if these were in Russia.  (Sure enough, I've just looked them up on the internet. Red fox  are ‘eurasian’ origin and a picture I found of  young fox matched identically the three I saw playing in the woods near the tracks.   It was an exciting moment. Reminded me of seeing young cougar last year in my headlights driving down a logging road by Prince George.)
I saw a hawk and pointed to that.   He saw it and responded with something like ‘scuba’.  Barrett translated that as falcon. Sure enough he was right, because it had been a falcon.
Barrett was asleep when we were drawing pictures of deer and moose. He was a better artist than I but mostly he said only rabbits were hunted locally and that people went up north to hunt deer.  He thought there were moose in siberia when I drew a picture of the great horns.  (I’ve just checked the internet and there is a Eurasian moose in Siberia.)
I took pictures and eventually slept. Since I didn’t get any murderous looks in the morning I thought I’d not snored too loudly thanks to taking an antihistamine.  Barrett said otherwise. “The fellow on the lower bunk was wearing head phones and the fellow on the upper bunk was competing with you for a bit.”  I gathered he lost.  Barrett has ear plugs but sleeps lightly.
Meanwhile I'd had a very pleasant though disrupted sleep.  I enjoyed waking early at dawn to pee, then going back to bed for another couple of hours of sleep before getting up  to wash and change.
Now we’ve taken the metro into Moscow central where Barrett has arranged another rented apartment.  I’m at this lovely outdoor cafe with wifi. We’d come here unable to find the apartment until Barrett called the cleaning lady and she came by to fetch us.  A couple of women and kids are still clearing out so we won’t be able to get in till 2 or 3.  We’ve left our heavy bags there. In the wait for the cleaning lady I had terrific eggs and bacon here.
Barrett said she was going off for a power walk.  I told her I’d rather a second cup of coffee.  So she’s joining me later when we plan to do a leisurely walk.  I forgot my razor in the last place so I’m working on the Don Johnson look. I’ve got tickets to the Opera at the Bolshoi Theatre tonight.  Barrett’s planning to meet with friends while I’m getting cultured.
I enjoyed Ulyanovsk. I admit there’s a lot of ‘loving your enemy’ going on for me.  I realize that since the Kennedy Missile Crisis, Cold War and tales of artists and scientists jailed and Gulag, and even the recent arrest of Pussy Riot, I’ve been afraid of Russia as a totalitarian state.  No doubt this is the way North Korea is and likely parts of China.  Human life isn’t worth much individually in these places and more people go missing than ever did in Argentina.
I’ve thought I’d never survive in a communist country with all it’s authoritarianism, militarism, parentalism and powerful demand for conformity.  I guess I think of myself as ‘different’ , not ‘special’ but seriously prone to ask the wrong question of people in authority, especially the dirty ones, whether in the university, my own government or wherever. I’ve been thankful that while it’s been very hard to be truthful in Canada I’ve not been knocked off.  Arrested, civil rights disregarded, subjected to the worst abuses of power, blacklisted, true,  but I’m still alive and living a relatively free life.  I guess I felt I’d possibly not survive here.  In the past that may have been true but oday I doubt that.
There’s a creativity and a European flavour with little left of the Soviet era except in the scowls and judgemental looks of a few of the old people. There’s a nostalgia.  Barrett says there was ’security’ in the old regime and that people have been very upset about their losses of pension. The same is true in Canada. Government promises of ‘work hard now’ and ‘we’ll reward you in old age’ have certainly turned out to be a lie to a large extent for many. To my mind nothing fuels gangsterism and outlaws more than this deceit and betrayal by government. And all over those in power make laws that serve them and young people increasingly see the criminals as little different from those in power.  In this vacuum then the church offers much.
Corporatism is everywhere.  All the transnational names we know are everywhere. MacDonalds, Chevrolet, Chanel, Gucci, Kentucky Fried Chicken, KIA, Toyota.  It’s all a matter of scale and distribution but the question of ‘responsibility’ for the people arises.  This comes out in minimum wage discussions and discussions of the cost of education and old age pension.  The state taxes and the corporations function as a third or fourth body of business.  It makes government that much more complex.  Barrett and I have discussed with concern the increasing 'slavery' in the modern world. "Why call it 'trafficking', it's slavery'" she says. "We should call a thing what it is."
There’s a sense of powerlessness in the size of things.  Billions and billions on the planet right now.  Yet people all over go to work and make the best of the time when they’re there or apart.  We’re vacationing now. Barrett and I both have enviable positions in the ‘wage slave’ part of the world.  A man once said to me that he felt sorry for those like me who ‘worked’.  He said he was thankful that his family had learned generations ago to make money work for them so now he lives off the incomes of ‘parking lots’ they own.
I told Barrett I’d heard a corporate leader wanting all water to be ‘paid for’ as a ‘commodity’. She actually surprised me by saying, ’that may be necessary, so people don’t waste it. There’s so much waste now.”  I then mentioned ‘air’ and tried to recall that great sci fi movie where one of the big male actors (Schwarzenagger maybe) was on a space station where the people worked for ‘air credits’.
Dr. Ney, the great ‘pro life’ advocate says this all naturally follows from the abortionists claim that ‘life should be wanted’.  He says instead ‘life is and life is sacred’.  There’s a whole lot of horse and cart thinking in this area. I so enjoy his genius and clarity of thinking on the topic, though he’s a prophet in the desert.     Life has become a ‘commodity’ as has air and water.  It seems to me that commodities should follow life and that the capitalist system taking to this absurdist extreme becomes as cold and uncaring as the enemy ‘communist’ regime.  Both are silly in their extremes whereas each has so much to offer in the middle ground.
The more I talk to people here, the more I hear that Lenin is admired still.  Stalin is criticized. Indeed one person told me that Lenin had wanted to restore basic capitalism and was promoting what the Chinese now are doing. Stalin in contrast wanted the strict centralization and certainly was the killer of millions to achieve it.  In the museums theres the term the ‘great thaw’ for the times following.
I remember hearing of the people years back who bought a car but had to have relatives ship them tires from abroad because there were no tires available because of the short thinking of central planning. I remember the ‘awe’ the Russian athletes showed when I took them to our supermarket back in the 80’s.  They simply could not get over so much choice and so much ’stock’. They described how little was available in their stores. Now all the stores here are the same as stores in Canada.  But just like Canadians Russians struggle to 'afford' the 'commodities' now available.
Moscow is no different in nature now from a major western city except perhaps things break down more. At our first apartment we were to have wifi.  It worked then it didn’t work. Barrett, said ‘we paid for it.’ So being the lawyer ,she got on the phone and contacted the owner. Soon a young man arrived on a motorcycle. He went through all the permutations I’d already done without success. A while later another fellow arrived on a motorcycle and this one checked the wiring and replaced one of the cables. The wi fi worked overnight but was not working the next day.  In the next apartment it was the washing machine that didn’t work.  It all seemed normal to me, since I live on sailboat a lot and sailboats are notorious for things breaking down in the harsh elements. But Barrett says it’s common for odd things here in Russia, in home and in the neighbourhood, to not work.  Barrett’s friend told of the uncertainty of plane flights with the trains more reliable because planes in the interior can suddenly be cancelled without warning.
That said, this year so many in the city of Winnipeg were without water because of the deep freezing that affected the main water supply for whole sections of the city.  A major city reduced to depending on water trucks for months.  It happens everywhere. We’ve just become expectant of the increasing ‘reliability’ and ‘functionality’ of the modern world.
“It’s been a bit like camping’ , Barrett said.  “Not really. I think it’s been a grand adventure.”  
At times I’m reminded of Mexico City then I realize it’s a bit like New York. There's parts of the town with poorly up kept roads and others which are beautifully maintained .A real effort has been made in Ulyanovsk in the tourist area and main shopping areas to maintain streets and sidewalks.
In the West we can't be too judgemental as I’ll never forget the cockroaches that were all over the floor of my fine New York hotel room the first time I stayed there.  Then there was the rat I saw running across the fine dining room in Vancouver.  Now in Canada we have coyotes ranging through our suburbs along with racoons and deer eating our gardens.   As humans we push nature back a bit before nature pushes back. We get to the moon and set up an international space station then struggle to contend with drug addiction and obesity in the increasingly affluent societies of the world.
As the secular atheists are attacking the liberal Christians the fundamentalist Moslems are attacking the schools and libraries.  There’s no end to the variety. If only we could sit back and watch it all as ‘entertainment’ but we actually live in it like a bizarre reality show.
I’m always thankful for the distance I get from home when I travel. I can reflect positively on the benefits I know.  Even now I’m missing the routine which was becoming a tad repetitive before this trip. I’m missing my little dog Gilbert and looking forward to camping in the wilderness. Being in the press of people in the city I am again reminded of what a privilege we have in the wilderness we have in Canada. I look forward to sailing soon even if I’m always responsible for all the myriad things that
can and do go wrong when I’m out sailing or backwoods camping and hunting.

I have been ripped off by a couple of taxi drivers.  I think every country and city that presents itself as a ‘tourist’ destination should have routine ‘sting operations ‘ on taxi drivers. Then take away the taxi licenses of any taxi driver who dupes tourists. After each of these experiences I feel that I am loathed as a foreigner by these people, that they ‘prey’ on ‘my vulnerability’ and hate tourists. I know everyone else in the system longs for the tourist dollars and yet repeatedly it seems the taxi drivers who are in such a position to be the ‘ambassador’ of the city turn out to be the lowest of smegma crooks stinking rotten and corrupt.  Barrett has been keen to use the metro and public transit. The Moscow metro has been just fine though I have trouble with the alphabet. We’ve actually had very good experience flagging down ‘gypsy taxies’ .  We were really fortunate that Vlad arranged for us to have a reliable taxi driver get us to the airport.  In Rome I was ripped off by taxi drivers too.  I wonder if Vancouver taxi drivers rip off tourists to our city.  I’d recommend a ‘sting’ there but this would only work if it was tied with ‘loss of license ‘because these ‘rip offs’ amount to ‘highway robbery’ and ‘downright theft’.
I worry a lot about theft travelling.  Even in the woods in Canada I hate leaving my truck and such. Thieves are increasingly my nemesis.  We speak of the value of people but civilization must protect ‘property’ as well.  I don’t think putting people in jail is nearly as effective as making them pay back to the victim what has been stolen. Maybe I’m still like a person with PTSD reeling from the theft still by the girl I gave a job to at the office years back and recently the theft of $20,000 by a girlfriend’s family member.  My concern is always with the failure of the system and law, and law enforcement, that allows these psychopaths and sociopaths to infest civilization.  I see that Moscow is listed as a risk for ciminal behaviour but my experience in Vancouver is that it’s as unsafe as anywhere in the world when it comes to theft.  In South America and Africa people are kidnapped and ransomed .Thank god we don’t have that in Canada.  My family in Ottawa reminded me that I was no longer in Vancouver when I was there and that I didn't have to think every other person was a thief.
I’ve enjoyed the outdoors stores here. There's pharmacies, fashion, computer stores and all that.  I've seen everything I'd see in Hong Kong, Milan or any other major city. But other than Canada and America, I've not seen many outdoor stores.  They're likely around, just not mainstream.  Here though I've come across several outdoor equipment stores. Nothing I’ve seen as good as MEC or REA, or Cabella but some very fine wilderness equipment. Excellent knives and some very fine workmanship. I love the engraving on some of the working knives.  I expect there’s bigger camping stores given the Russians I know love the outdoors like Canadians do.  We are spoiled in Canada with Canadian Tire everywhere. Here there's a tendency for smaller stores for functional items whereas there are big superstores for fashion wear.
 People here talk of ‘dachuas’ . I thought of them more as luxury country palaces. They of course can be but the term is as much used for ‘cottage’ as we refer to our’ cottages back home.  Some are mansions while others are one room cabins.  Here Russians like to have a place out of the city and it may just be a little house in a nearby town. It doesn't have to be a scenic lakeside place. Barrett thought some of the little houses we passed with people out gardening in back might well have been dachaus.

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