From the archives….found this post is my Windows Live Writer draft list. It is really fun to remember this now!
(I wrote this post the day of our arrival to Russia, however I am not posting it until I leave Russia)
A lot of people ask me about how different other countries are from our own. Usually my reply is that everything is fine, no big deal, things are different, not wrong but different. And that is very true. However the first time you experience a new country particularly one that is poorer than your own, there is a culture shock factor that is present at first but will eventually fade (usually) when you spend some time traveling in that place. That initial culture shock hit our tour as we entered Russia. Not in a bad way necessarily, it was just interesting.
First, we need to go back to the border crossing. I have no pictures of this stuff because I would have been thrown in jail. There is a fairly large gap between Finland and Russia. Getting out of Finland was pretty easy, getting into Russia was not. An Anna Kournikova look-alike gave us immigration forms (in Russian) to fill out to present to the border guards. Those female border guards were the most awful ones I have ever encountered. I was glared at the whole time, she looked so angry like she might throw a punch at any minute. Luckily, I got stamped and let through as did the rest of everyone else. (That damn visa cost me $500 and 2 trips to DC, it had better be okay!!!).
After a few miles in Russia, our bus got pulled over for speeding. Our bus was equipped with equipment that gives a digital readout of our speed over the trip so the driver printed it out and gave it to the policemen. Instead of the large bribe we would have had to fork over, we instead only handed over a small bribe because everyone knew the bus was not actually speeding.
We arrived in a town about 20 km in from the border for lunch at the bus terminal of this town. All 50 of us got of the bus started wandering around for food and then quickly abandoned the idea of getting any food. Lunch ended up being chips and granola bars we already had and food stolen from breakfast. All of us did this. No one got food. Some people got Cokes but that was it. I bought some skittles (purple is not grape!) out of sheer desperation for change to pee (it costs 20 rubles to use the bathroom). And for the first and only time the whole trip, the group arrived back at the bus 20 minutes early for departure. When we all boarded the bus early and ready to go, the guide said he expected that, every other tour before us had done the same thing. The food was very different, no one spoke English, we were intimidated. And then he bet us on our way out through Belarus in another small border town, we would have no problem eating lunch with the locals because we had acclimated to the culture. The guide was totally right. We adjusted and became comfortable in our surroundings.
Footnote written 3/24/13: I had someone ask me last weekend if Russia was the best vacation ever. I replied that I loved it for the history and culture but that many people that I went there with probably did not love it. The people were more harsh to us than I’m used to and there are many corrupt things that turned me off (the speeding bribes and vodka bribe at the border crossing to get out of Russia). I would recommend to anyone that they need to experience Russia at least once for the gorgeous architecture and history, as well as for the more colorful things that open your eyes as a traveler to other ways of life.