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Brian’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 24 Mar 2007

Location: Train to Riga, Latvia

MapThe train to Riga was the most interesting one yet. I think more happened on this train then all the others combined. This train had an actual bar set up on the train that looked like any other bar you could walk into from the street. As soon as the train got going I went to the bar to escape the small family in my room and immediately I met Donotas, a Lithuanian who used to live in Tahoe. Donotas served as my translator for all the Russian speakers who wanted to meet the foreigner. Most were very friendly and offered me drinks, a couple of others were pretty hostile.

Donotas met his wife in America and got married in Vegas and liked America so much that he named his daughter 'Erica' so that when she introduces herself she says "I'm Erica" which sounds exactly like a Lithuanian saying "America." I thought that was pretty clever. Having a conversation with an America-loving individual was very heart warming. I wouldn't say that conversations like that are rare - I'd say they were non-existent until now. Most of my time is usually spent answering the question "Do you like Bush?" or "Why didn't America sign the Kyoto treaty?" I usually bob and weave around the questions like I am playing dodge ball just to avoid any confrontation. However, a couple of young Russian soldiers found out I was American and didn't really want to ask me any questions, just yell at me and if they had their way probably throw me off the train. They started out by shouting loudly across the bar to let everyone in it know I was American and that they weren't fond of my country. I didn't need a translator to figure out what was happening. They were basically trying to see if they could find anyone else in the bar to join them in bashing America - and maybe even the American. It was all in Russian but you don't need to translate "America in Iraq, America in Afghanistan, America in Serbia" and so on (Apparently these guys aren't taught Russian history before 1990). But, thankfully, no one joined in with them and they shut up for at least a little while.

During the intermission of anti-American rants from the soldiers our small group was serenaded by an older gentleman reciting poetry from the soviet days. It was an interesting group that included two Latvian fisherman who shared their cognac with me and told me how much they loved Miami. A German guy played guitar for his two Russian girlfriends and together we sang an alcohol induced rendition of Johnny Cash's "Burning Ring of Fire." At least half of the words could have been right.

On a bathroom break in the hallway I ran into the 'friendly' Russian soldiers who politely told me to "Die American" on their way past. I felt so loved. When I got back to the bar they had a few more choice Russian words for me and illustrated with hand gestures how they wanted to land a plane in America and shoot everyone. And then, bizarrely, the one soldier handed me a shot of vodka so that I could drink to his health. Obviously, I'm not feeling like their friends but Russians have an interesting way of getting to know people. Basically, if you drink with them you are okay in their book no matter how much they think they should hate you. So I took the shot. The shot of vodka was a test for me. Had I made a sour face or not drank the entire shot at once they would have liked me even less. Instead they respected me, but still disliked me because I was American. Certainly an odd sequence of events.

After the soldiers went to go pass out a couple of new guys came in to the bar and Donotas gave them a summary of what was happening between the soldiers and myself. They were embarrassed by their military countrymen and did not want me to leave Russia with a bad impression. They invited me to stay at a small border town to experience 'real' Russia completely on their dime. They did not want me to leave their country with the bad impression of the soldiers that I had just experienced. Sadly, I could not join them because all of my flights to Norway were already booked. Needless to say there was no way I was going to leave with a bad impression of Russia.

We drank and talked until 4am when we were forced to return to our cabins for the boarder crossing. I handed my documents over to the immigration officer and she gave me a weird look and asked me something in Russian that I obviously did not understand and could not answer. Playing stupid at border crossings or with the police in general is always a great tactic, but in this case I'm sure it seemed like a great performance because I wasn't pretending. I eventually got my passport back and went to bed. The next morning I saw Donotas again on the platform exiting the train and he told me the two immigration officers were discussing me in his room the night before at the border. Apparently they had never seen immigration documents like mine before. I guess not too many people enter Russia via Mongolia and leave via Latvia. It's not uncommon to get pulled off the train and fined $5,000 if you paper work is not in order. In the end the one officer asked the other if I spoke Russian and when she replied "No" she was told just to let me go. Ignorance is truly bliss.

I am out of Russia now and I will miss St. Pete's and Moscow. I wish had more time and money to see some smaller western Russian towns.