The Time I Got Stuck In Several Countries: Part 1 – Russia

Trams!

Trams!

This is the story I have retold the most in my life. And for good reason. It kind of sounds made up, yet not really epic enough to be worth the time imagining it. Maybe I should let you, the fearless reader, decide whether or not it is a tale worth continually spinning.

In 2008, I traveled to the small medieval town of Brno, in the Czech Republic. Now, if you’ve never heard of Brno, you’re probably far from alone. It’s a university town, in the West. Why in anyone’s name would I decide to make Brno, non-descript Brno, my first destination ever to travel to in Europe. I had no part in the decision making process. I acted in a play and the play was recorded and submitted to a festival in Brno. So I was in Brno. There I was. Like a dog after a bath. I raced all over experiencing firsts. Monumental firsts! Such as riding a train for the first time. As passengers sat looking at mobile devices or gossip magazines or dozing off, drool and mushed fleshed smeared against the windows, the most beautiful, living landscape wooshed by, only replaced with more beautiful scenery. I was shocked. I had not the experience of doing a daily commute abroad, so could not comprehend how people were able to refrain from constantly staring out of the window at the natural masterpieces. The train felt like a revelation. The passengers felt like a Tuesday.

Adventures through Czech Lands - walking through the mountains around Czesky Krumlov.

Adventures through Czech Lands – walking through the mountains around Czesky Krumlov.

The play ended and the options were endless. A friend and I traveled through the Czech lands, utilizing the infant couchsurfer project, finding amazing hosts throughout the country. An Irish dancer in Olomouc, a mechanic and his family living in a small town outside of Ceske Budejovice. We ended up in the capital. He left. I stayed. Stayed and taught English for four months. A contract ends and freedom once again is attained. I decide to explore my Jewish cultural heritage. Though I felt very little connection to my faith, I was interested in my history, interested in seeing the places where thousands and millions of my supposed extended family were imprisoned and slaughtered. There was other histories as well. And I was interested in them too. The stones of walls and cobbled streets narrated aloud. I travel along a zig zagging line across Eastern Europe on several chugging bullets. I see parts of Poland, the dark undertones of The Holocaust seep into every observable space. I continue on. I almost visit Belarus (a story), but end up in the Ukraine instead atop a tin roof, with one of the leading members of the Ukrainian Gay Rights Movement. We watched the sun ride over onion shaped domes and steeples. With Visa clutched tightly, I enter Russia. I spend time with family friends in Moscow and move onto to stay with a couchsurfer in the beautiful and ancient city of St. Petersburg.

Train to Russia

Train to Russia

On the day my Visa expires I hug my couchsurfing host goodbye and board a bus heading to Estonia. The bus, once a thing of beauty, sturdy as a mechanized colt, now emitted the sounds of a starving stomach, a machine on its deathbed. It breaks down and takes an hour to fix. We reach the boarder in the pitch soot sky of the next day’s morning. We are all made to exit the bus and walk through passport inspection and security. I haven’t noticed the time yet. There are no clocks on the walls. I hand a guard my passport. He squints to make out the dates on my visa. We stand still as steles. The line no longer moves as the guard calls upon someone else, another guard, who I can only presume is his superior officer. Broken English leaks from his mouth in a monotone fashion:

“I am sorry. Your Visa is no longer. You cannot leave.”

I stand, backpack still strapped to me, sweat stained, knees knocking, body burning. I stand for two hours. I am finally allowed to take a seat in a waiting room that reminds me of my childhood pediatrician’s office. I can see into another office space, where a woman types away on an old typewriter. Maybe it was a computer, but I see it in my mind as a typewriter, so that’s what it shall be. I have already pleaded in English to any passerby, telling them my tale of an unlucky experience with a rickety bus. The faces whizz by, not all too concerned with my gibberish, my babbling. I whip out my electronic translator and attempt to make a sentence. I think I am saying:

 

“My grandmother was kicked out of Russia one hundred years ago and now you are imprisoning me in it. Please, please let me go.”

Could anyone understand my butchering of the Mother tongue? At first, no. People went about their menial tasks like good Communist worker ants. Then I see the woman at the typewriter through the door. The old typewriter has stopped clanging. She is frozen in a still frame. She wears a pastel dress that looks very itchy. She is a still frame except for the tears streaming down her reddened cheeks. Yet there is nothing she can do, so she breaks from the trance and continues to type. I feel her. There is nothing that I can do either.

An officer approaches me and explains my crimes once more. I am frustrated and tired and really don’t need another explanation. The officer tells me I will be boarding a bus.

Great.

Where to?

St. Petersburg.

That is the last place I wished to go now. And yet, that was what was happening. My frustrations no longer could be contained. Be damned with the consequences of voicing my objections to the regime stoolies. What could they do? Throw me in jail?….Yes! But if I get caught wandering the streets of Saint P without a legit visa, I’ll be in the same spot. I air this concern with them. It gives them a good chuckle. I yell. I curse. I am now sitting on a tourist bus. A tourist bus heading to Saint P. It drops me off in a part of the large city that I don’t know. Think Ira. What are you going to do? I find the subway system and descend into the arterial tubes bellow the city. Somehow, I remember the directions to my couchsurfer’s home. It’s 4:30 in the morning. I don’t wish to disturb her, but my options are limited.

I pensively knock. There is an audible stir from within. The door creaks ajar and she stands there, hand behind her head, stretching, scratching.

“I am so sorry…..”

I unfolded my blanketed story. My former host stands there, looking lost, eyes mostly closed, body rocking. Yet her pause was one of consideration. Her solution was swift and to the point:

“Let’s have Port.”

“Um. But…”

“No but. Offices aren’t open yet. Only thing open is Port.”

I couldn’t argue. Port, port and more port. A call to the Canadian embassy provided no answers, but asked if I found some later to pass them on to this fine governing body, so that they can take credit from what I have learned from this plain shit-storm experience. Thank you tax dollars. As useless as national pride.

I bought a new train ticket and did a bit of snooping around for information on what my next move would be. Rumor has it that there is a phone somewhere in the St. Pete’s airport that you can call and contact a guy who you can bribe to leave the country. It was worth a shot. After six hours of searching the airport for the Where’s Waldo Phone and having some of the best damn sushi I had ever had (which threw me off, as the sushi maker was blonde haired and blue eyed), I found the mythical phone. Wheezing, an extended cough greeted me.

“Hi, my visa expired, I would like to get an extension so that I can leave Russia.”

“You buy plane ticket…”

“I bought a train ticket…”

“No….you buy plane ticket.”

“But I have already spent money on a train and bus ticket”

“You buy plane ticket”

“….THESE ARE STUPID RULES”

“These are student rules? THESE ARE RUSSIA RULES!”

And he hangs up. And I stand there. And my blood boils. And my eyes well. And I hold it in. And I pick up the phone. It was a red phone, like the emergency phone that Commissioner Gordon would use to contact Batman with. I pick up the phone and I call him back. I have no idea who this man is. I have no idea if he is also having a bad day. He is just following orders. Well…not really, as what he is doing is bribery, but….still. He’s just trying to make a buck.

“50 dollars”

50 bucks to be exact. 50 bucks for a visa extension. I looked it as 50 bucks for freedom. I am sure many others who do not have freedom would pay way more for it. And he was my only option. He told me that I needed a plane ticket and fast. I was original set to be in Estonia two days ago via bus, but couldn’t find a flight there. Instead, I flew to Tallinn, the capital of Finland. It was a ferry ride away to get back on track.

As I crossed the tarmac, the sun falling behind the outlines of shady watchtowers, I breathe deep for the first time in a few days. A final double peace sign photo op at the top of the stairs, then I duck into the plane. That duck was supposed to be like a Mario duck, leading me to safety. Mario’s not real and nor was my perceived safety.

Better times in Russia

Better times in Russia

 

 

Puerto Vallarta Without the Booze Cruise

 

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Oblivion. A place we intend to or unintendedly meet on any Puerto Vallarta booze cruise. I met it unintendedly. I did it to stave off contextually onset depression. The plastic bathtub boat us and as many others could be shoved in. The subpar continental restaurant. The scuba spot occupied by at least 85 hundred (accurate count) other “tour group” bathtub boats. This was not a place to see fish, but rather the fat, pink wiggling bait of thousands of fleshy limbs. The waterfall. Oh. Sorry. The waterfall wasn’t the depressing part itself. It was the way there. A mud path, where horses were being unvoluntarily pulled, topped by unamused, drunken camera clicking, sombreroed tourists, passing through electricless towns, where kids hobbies included obligatory begging for money from the insensitive kings and queens for an all inclusive week getaway, riding atop their slave horses.

Let me suggest an alternative, a few things that I don’t usually see on the Puerto Vallarta to do list, which I think make for a more cultured, different experience.

 

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Walking Around Beyond the Malecon…

If your not at the beach, The Malecon is the PLACE to be in if you’re a tourist in PV. It has everything you could ever want: street performers, art, food, hawkers, gawkers, walkers, lots of exposed skin steaming out of the open faced bars and clubs that line the boardwalk. It’s a no brainer and super close to the hotels, so there is no way of getting lost. In a way, it’s the epitome of John Huston’s Mexico, a theme park like Americanized Mexico, manageable, accessible, rife with stereotypes and panchos and sumbraros. So keep walking, go beyond the Malecon, beyond the Senior Frogs, beyond the Yellow Brick Road. Get a map of the city, a good map of the city, even BETTER a digital map and just wander. Don’t set a destination, don’t route a course, just explore.

random neighborhood

random neighborhood

On my random walk I found a beautifully ornate and peacefully silent Church, just North West of the Malecon, found a lovely Mexican Candy store and a place that made fresh tortillas, the old school way. Yes, numerous people have been/seen/ate at these places, but for myself, they’re not in the guidebooks, they’re not on the tourist radar, so when I happen upon them, it feels as if I have made a triumphant discover, a discovery you can tell people about later, but more so, a discovery that you can experience. Some of these findings may not be a SIGHT, but could just be a place of everyday business, a residential area, a school, something. Just like Alice in wonderland – If you walk long enough, you’ll get somewhere and if your not too concerned about what that somewhere entails, then your in good hands in Puerto Vallarta, with small surprises around every corner. There’s a desire to find the “real” _____________ (country name). I am not sure exactly what that fully means ever, but I feel that you have a better chance of finding authenticity outside of the marketed, consumer based downtown hub.

Galleria Dante

Galleria Dante

Exploring the Art Galleries

This is an activity that many partake in, but can be a great way to traverse the city, see art and see all the wonderful places in between. The city is full of amazing art and amazing artists, with many contemporary galleries displaying everything from installations, to mixed media, to everything in between. The Dante Galleria on Basillio Badilio is a wonderful cluttered art space, that is both in doors and outdoors and claims to be the biggest gallery in the city. Your eyes dart too and fro, trying to take everything in, an impossible task, as there are so many unique pieces, from the pop culture influence origami paintings of Emilio Rama, hiding behind the ceremonial garbed metal, stone and wood statues of Oscar Zamarripa.

More of Galleria Dante

More of Galleria Dante

Galeria Contempo has some funky up and comers, while the Sergio Bustamante gallery and jewelry store, with the artist’s signature long faced figures (which are even on the door handles to the store), is a great place to not only see, but also own some pretty amazing functional art. And that’s just the tip of the paintbrush or pen or whatever medium you wish to work in. There are also a lot of places with folk art, though, personally, I am not a BIG fan of beading, tiles or simple cut wood carved masks (though the gallery with the masks, of which the name escapes me, is in a REALLY cool building that was an old colonial house, one of the few originals still up).

Torta numiness

Torta numiness

Trying a Local Restaurant

If your at an all inclusive or the hotel zone, it’s easy to simply pop into a tourist filled eatery and indulge on fare that is made particularly to suit your tastes. But why not get out of your comfort zone and, for that matter, the tourist zone, and try eating at a small, family run hole in the wall, with an assortment of mismatched tables and chairs, maybe a football match, blaring on a fuzzy, old school television set, the smell of food and sweat, both pungent and thrillingly aromatic filling your nostril with fear and curiosity. Sure, at these joints, the menus might not be sprawling or in English, but with a little Spanish or some fancy gestures, I’m sure you’ll be eating something super yummy, with the owners more than happy to take your money (support the local, local economy) as well as your kind praises. On Calle Jacarendas, at a restaurant that was, I believe, entitled something “Dolphins”, I had the best mole I have ever had, period. This restaurant is not in a guidebook, not even on a blog. It’s there and serves the local populous, good, affordable sustenance.

Squid and wine sauce.

Squid and wine sauce.

Take a chance, find a restaurant full of locals, which is a sure bet that it’s pretty good. Not all local restaurants can be classified as “hole-in-the-walls” either. Chenan2 Restaurant, which was a blog recommended place, is a family owned establishment, where the chef, who was formally a painter, decided to pick up cooking, after his mother passed. His work is both on the plates and on the walls of this medium sized restaurant. The sala, guac and chips were pretty on point, but it was my main meal, grilled octopus in a white wine sauce that blew me away with a lovely, rich flavor palette of salty butter goodness, with a slight and desired tang. Num Num Num! If I hadn’t gotten severe stomach poisoning (a story unto itself), I would have eaten at many more wonderful places throughout PV, because, rest assure, there are many.

Fish and shrimp tacos.

Fish and shrimp tacos.

Planning Your Own Taco Tour

There are some great professional guided taco tours that I have heard about in PV and saw several of them while I was on my own taco tour. Due to budgetary restrictions, an official taco tour was not in the cards, but that doesn’t mean a unofficial tour wasn’t possible. So how did I know where to go? Well how about I give you a link of a map that I used:

http://vallartainfo.com/street-food/

It’s a good starting point that you can add to for future trips!

Church of Talpa De Allende

Church of Talpa De Allende

Visiting Outlying Towns

PV started off as a small fishing village that expanded due to the influx of tourists flocking to see the place made famous by John Huston’s films, so a lot of the culture is geared towards that market and presenting it in it’s most big and bold forms. For something more intimate and what many would consider more authentic Jalisco culture, one has to leave the city.

The issue with leaving the city is….where do you go? There are many options out there, such as Bucerias, a small fishing/artist community, but many of them too, are overrun with tourists and have lost a bit of their charm (not all of it, just a bit!). It all depends what you are interested in. For me, I was interested in culture and history, not beaches and booze. By doing a few google searches I found Talpa De Allende, a former silver mining town that has an important church for Christian pilgrimage and Mascota, a old colonial town. After searching online for tours, we decided to go with Vallarta Adventures, who we actually got connected with by a tourist agency on the beach. Now, usually I would travel via public transit bus, but I was with my father, so I thought to give him a little more ease by taking a tour. And what a wonderful tour it was! We were fed a continental breakfast right at the door of the tour. Once we got on the bus, Alfonzo, our knowledgeable guide started to tell us information of what we were seeing out the windows, as well as the history of the area. You had a question, Alfonzo had a very well articulate answer. The tour wasn’t your regular SEE THE SITES tour. “This tour will attempt to give you a glimpse into the REAL Mexico”, Alfonzo, as if reading my mind, told the four of us on the bus as we were leaving the hustle and bustle of PV, “and it’s not for everyone”. He shared with us that he liked that the tours were small, so that they could talk more, rather than him simply lecturing and spewing out facts.

Mascota door

Mascota door

In Mascota, we visited a practical application high school, where students learned to farm and make cheese and raise animals. We saw the unfinished cathedral, ate fresh baked cookies and hot chocolate in a local’s house and hung out in the town square for a bit, along with men conversing on benches, sporting big cowboy hats, getting their shoes blackened and shined.

Milk from Mascota's practical high school

Milk from Mascota’s practical high school

In Talpa, we saw how guava roll candies are made, along to Rompope, an eggnog like alcohol, that tricks you into finishing off the whole bottle on a school night (true story). We were given time to walk around the town centre, where I purchased a taco-press, engraving the wood with “Tacotim!” (it was suppose to be “Tacotime!”, but that’s what I get for trying to get a Mexican engraver to write in a foreign language), as well as visiting the much venerated church, that was packed to the brim for services, complete with Mariachi Band. Our lunch was taken back in Mascota, before we returned along the mountainous, lush green, roadway that took us back to PV. An amazing day-trip, which really felt like I saw and partook in something really special, that not everyone bothers to see.

Again, my idea of a good time might be slightly different than yours. But who knows? Some of those likes might sink up and you’ll find value in this post. If not…hope you liked my word choice and the pretty pictures. Ditto for those who are interested in what I am interested in as well, when it comes to travel, at least!

Again, if you ever have any questions about what you see or have seen, suggestions, ideas for Each Mile and the BIG trip in 2017 (World Cycle Tour – Vancouver, Canada to Beijing China), let me know! Or just comment, hate it? like it? Care very little for it?

Hammocks are cool.

Hammocks are cool.

Thanks!

Ira