Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Good Morning, Trans-Siberian

Sleep isn't coming. My left earplug's come out again, and I'm putting both of them away. While I try to rearrange the covers on my upper bunk with my feet, I shove my pillow to one side to see out the compartment window a little better. At first I think we're going through a tunnel, but then realize the sun still hasn't risen. I fumble for my pants, and pull the cell phone out of my pocket to check the time. 3:37am. Maybe. We'd crossed one time zone yesterday morning and then yet another in the afternoon, and figuring out whether we'd done it again would have taken effort. My phone hadn't automatically updated its clock since Australia, so I'd just set it to Moscow time. I realize water is in order, reach down for my Nalgene knock-off and drink.

Two hours later, I wake up again, still not knowing what time it really is. I take a quick survey of the compartment. Across from me in the upper bunk, the 26-year-old Russian father is asleep, shirtless without any covers, and making an odd squeaking noise with his mouth I'd only heard one or two people pull off, conscious or unconscious. His 22-year-old wife is asleep on the bunk below him, as was their 3-year-old son, who is buck naked. Across from them on the bunk below mine is the new guy, fully clothed, no covers, asleep on his face. He looks like just like stereotypical drunk out of a Charlie Chaplin movie. I can no longer smell him on account of having been in the cabin far longer than the 5 minutes it takes for the human nose to ignore existing smells. Same with the smoked omul fish. propped open by toothpicks on the table for the last three days, though we might have eaten all those last night. The fish, not the toothpicks. Actually, after the amount of vodka consumed by all present, I can only really speak for myself on that point.

Where did my shirt go? I switch to clean underwear under the covers, pull on my pants and clean socks and start digging around my bunk and the crawlspace at the end where I'd stashed my bag and food. I'd already had one t-shirt disappear on me in the last couple days, and had left another shirt with a couchsurfing host to dry who then couldn't return it (though she's going to meet me with it in Moscow on her way to Turkey). This means I have only one shirt left, the one I've been wearing. I guess I could go with my sweater if... where did my sweater go? I find the shirt under my bag and behind my last couple packets of noodles, but the sweater isn't anywhere so obvious. The shirt isn't smelling so good, so I get my drain plug, laundry detergent, and towel, and pat myself on the back again for having the sense to pack quick-dry clothing.

On my way to the bathroom, I run into Gareth, an engineer living in Holland. He is normally a fun and overwhelmingly positive guy. He does not look fun or overwhelmingly positive this morning. He tries to say good morning and ask how I am, and succeeds on the second or third try. "Dude, I really have to go to the bathroom." he says. The bathroom is occupied, but when it opens up, I let him go in first. Afterwards, he gets out a "later man" and goes back to the compartment with his other Portuguese friends to nurse the hangover from the Russian hospitality we were poured last night, mostly by the family of three.

I go in, scrub the bathroom sink a bit, plug it, fill with water, add detergent, take off my shirt and drop it in. I sit down to actually use the toilet while the shirt soaks. Someone raps sharply on the door. I rap sharply back. I think I know who it is-- the enormous lady cabin attendant locks the doors of the bathroom a few minutes before we stop at each station, and the train might be slowing down a bit. A minute later, I'm not quite done, and someone shakes the handle. I shake it back. I hear the attendant shouting something in Russian. The lock turns. I jam my foot in the door and turn it back, angrily yelling a two of the few words in Russian I learned from a play in college- pazhaulsta (please) and padazhdee (wait), adding a few choice phrases under my breath in English and Spanish. I flush, wash my hands, and start trying to rinse the shirt. The door is unlocked from the outside again, and this time since I have pants on, but no shirt, I allow it to open a crack. My favorite attendant yells something more at me in Russian, and I ignore her. I wring the shirt out, ignoring more yelling, and finally step out, shirtless, into the hallway, rolling the shirt up in my towel to dry, thinking of a very short list of words that rhyme with "witch."

I put the shirt back on, only a slightly damp, and walk back to my cabin to hang the wet towel up above my bunk. I get my Tupperware container, oatmeal and jam. I look around for the spoon and realize it's in the cup they were using for vodka, then beer. I'm not sure what they've done with it while I'm gone, so I first search for the one spoon I packed deep in my tool kit with the vague idea it will be useful. Nowhere to be found. So I take the tiny plastic fork that came with a large bowl-of-instant-noodles. There's a tap on my shoulder. The father is offering me a bottle of beer. Again. I break Russian protocol and turn it down. Not for breakfast, thank you. I put some oatmeal and jam in the container and exit to the hallway again.

I fill the container with boiling water from the samovar at the end of the cabin, and go to say hello to Allison, a traveler from Hawaii, standing in the hallway. "That lady is mean!" she said, nodding at the attendant's cabin. I agree, and wonder aloud why the train company hires an attendant who is as wide as the train hallways. Allison tells stories of her trying to read in the hallway when the attendant walk up and down, squeezing past and touching a lot of things she didn't want to touch.

The sun has just risen and the train has just stopped at this point. I feel another tap on my shoulder, and am a little surprised to see another doctor and nurse behind me. Rita, one of the four Portuguese travelers, got sick yesterday, and despite our telling them that, Alice, another one of the four, was a doctor, they insisted on calling a doctor to be at the next station, who came in, speaking only Russian, and throwing everyone else out of the compartment. This happened twice. Gareth yesterday said he thought it was remarkably thoughtful of them and showed excellent service and attention. But this time, with the doctor rapping on the door at hangover o'clock in the morning, I don't think he, or anyone else inside, is quite so happy.

After the fourth tap the compartment door slowly slides open and the doctor says dobbrey ootro (good morning). Then comes a lot of talking in Russian.

"Izviniche! (excuse me)" I call to the doctor, "Nipanimayu paruski! (What I thought meant They don't understand Russian  and really means I don't understand Russian)" I am ignored. More talking in Russian.

"Joel?" Gareth calls over "Can you translate some Paruski for us?" I come over and repeat myself. The doctors then turn to me and start speaking very fast in Russian. My skill with the language comes from a play I did in college where half my lines were in Russian, most of which I've forgotten, and much of the rest not being very useful, like "your flock" and "I have a Russian soul." My vocabulary fits on half a piece of paper, I checked. So I have no idea what the doctors are saying. But when they start pointing from bunk to bunk, I hazard a guess.

"I think they want to know who was sick." Gareth points to Rita, and I step back. A few seconds later, everyone except the patient is thrown out. First Gareth, leaning against the wall, then Alice, staring out the window, still wearing eyeliner from yesterday, and then João, stepping out with his classic deadpan expression, wearing a polo shirt, socks, and boxers with sharks and yellow fish. I want to take a photo, but I'm not that mean.

The doctors leave a couple minutes later, satisfied. Gareth comes over with his big smile,

"Okay, I'm awake now! Before, I wasn't doing so good, but no I can talk to somebody again!" I look from Alice, who is still staring out the window and not responding to noises, to Rita, still slightly sick, to her boyfriend, who still has no pants, and wonder which one feels like talking with Gareth.

The train begins to move. I go over to the samovar to get boiling water to wash out the Tupperware container, then back to the other end to the bathroom. It's still locked. So I exit the car and crouch on the space between the two cars, swishing the boiling water and scraping off bits of oatmeal, dumping the mix onto the moving tracks between cars. The attendant attendant opens the door, and gives me funny look number five million and sixteen before closing the door again.

Back to my compartment. The whole family is now awake. The mother gives me a huge smile, says dobrey ootro, and the kid resumes his favorite game of grabbing me by the pant leg and giggling. I say dobrey ootro back, get my toothbrush and toothpaste, gently detach myself from the kid, and go back out towards the bathroom, finding Alice waiting outside.

She asks me if I won the poker game I'd been pulled into with the Scottish, Spanish, and Australian guys late last night. My mouth is full of foam and toothpaste, so I just gave her a thumbs up to say yes. After the bathroom opens, I spit and clarify that I was in the final four when the restaurant staff had reclaimed their pile of bottle caps, leaving us without any chips. But still, I'd done pretty well.

On my way back, I run into someone in the hallway, I forget who, and they ask me if I'm going back to sleep. I tell them no, I am going to get my laptop and write up what had just happened in the morning for my blog.

And that's exactly what I do.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. How on earth do you have internet? Not that I'm complaining, it's good to hear about you. The trip sounds like (like most of your adventures) fun; it's also probably the one thing that most fits exactly what I would have expected. Good luck with the rest of the journey.

    Also, FYI, I am sitting in Regenstein Library right now.

  2. Shirtless in Sibera? I'm not sure I followed all of that on the first reading....but will read again. I have the same question as Count C regarding the internet. Anything more than what you have written for this entry is probably TMI for me:) Whew. Who knew when you auditioned for the play that a few words of Russian would be so useful. Muy entertaining. Lv, Anonymom

  3. Okay, reread and got it. What a sequence. To follow your hot-off-the press mode, the entry has been printed and mailed to your computerless follower in the hinterlands. He will enjoy it. Clicked the photos tab and those didn't come up so will presume we will see those when you are finally stopped in Moscow. Thx for the mid-trip TSR report. Lv,Anonymom

  4. Great post:) it is all true:) all I could do was laugh when I read this entry:)

    Gareth the portuguese Engineer:)

  5. It's amazing what you can understand if you just pay attention to gestures, context and intonation.
    When I went to Hungary a few years ago for a conference I had no time to learn any Hungarian. Instead I got a guidebook, copied down useful phrases on index cards (Where's the train station?" and put the English translation on the back. When I needed to find something I whipped out the appropriate card and showed it to the nearest, friendliest looking person and then just watched what they did with their hands and arms and listened for intonations indicating things like topics. It worked.
    Of course it probably helped that I'm a sign language interpreter.

  6. Speaking of train rides, quite a few years ago David, Kenna and I went by overnight train from Hungary to Florence.
    We boarded the train in the late afternoon, and got a 4 bunk compartment to ourselves. We ate dinner, read, played, got ready for bed, slept, woke up the next morning shortly before arriving in Florence, ate breakfast, etc.
    When we arrived and were leaving, I wanted to make sure we hadn't forgotten anything, so I looked under the bottom bunks. Nothing under one, and a man under the other---looking like he was sleeping, but I would guess not. Imagine my surprise.
    When we got back to Switzerland our Swiss friend said it was very common for people to stowaway on trains.
    Next time I look first.

  7. Count C- Well, I didn't have internet when I actually wrote the entry. I've got a system for writing posts and having them sync up as drafts the next time I go online.This was posted shortly after arriving in Moscow.

    Anonymom- Not sure what's wrong with the photos. Seems to be some glitch involving multiple word tags in picasa, but I'm not sure how to fix it short of retaging all the pictures individually... they're there though. If you go to the bottom of the Asia album, you'll see them.

    Gareth- Glad you liked it, keep it up and you'll show up in more entries soon-- we are hanging out in Holland, right?

    Catherine- Luckily in many countries, that's true. In some however, it's harder. In Japan, you practically never have to open your mouth, but in China, the simplest gestures simply aren't recognized, and it's one of those languages that always sounds angry to westerners. Nonverbal communication can be done, but you need more practice than you might elsewhere.

    The Russian and Chinese governments take stowaways very seriously, so I haven't had to deal with surprise guests quite yet, but I'll keep my eyes open now that I'm in Schengen territory. When were you guys in Hungary?

  8. We were in Hungary in the fall of 1992. We had gone to Switzerland to do some Alexander Technique workshops, and visited some friends in the Peace Corps in Szeged.
    It was not that long after the Wall had come down. We passed some very intimidating guard towers, and the guards who came through the train to check tickets were also rather intimidating.
    We had to change trains in Budapest. I picked up a map, not wanting to pay for a taxi for a few blocks walk. Problem was they had changed the Communist street names--which were all painted on the buildings. The old ones were painted out, new ones painted in, but the map had all the old names.
    Fortunately they hadn't actually moved the streets and you could just sometimes make out the old name. Adventures in Travel!