May 4, 2009

Russian Roulette

Despite making it across the Norwegian side of the Russian border, we still had to clear Russian customs. We entered the large gates of the Russian offices. I felt intimidated by the sight. A short, wide officer approached our vehicle and muttered something in Russian. He then pointed to the office. We parked the car and started for the office on foot just before we heard a loud shout that sounded something like, "looogage!" We hurried back to the van and emptied it of every item inside. As we lugged everything to the office doors the guards starred at us from inside and outside the windows of the building as if we were aliens. They hadn't seen a group like us in their entire life. We were surfers. One from Canada, one from Australia, and three from USA. We talked amongst ourselves wondering what would happen next. The worst part was our luggage which consisted of many large suitcases, camera gear, a tripod, a giant surfboard bag packed to the brim with three boards, video equipment, microphones, maps of military bases that line the coast, laptops, even a geiger reader which detects for radiation in the atmosphere. Not the best list of items to bring to Russia. 

I stepped into the office with doubt in my mind that we'd even make it to the other side. We easily made it through the Norwegian office half way to Russia, but still had the Russian customs to surpass. The office echoed with the  voices of the Russian guards. I felt quite nervous for some reason. The looks on the faces' of the guards were full of boredom and bitterness. It seemed to me they'd been waiting for a group like us to up for years so they could arrest us and put us all in some secret gulag for the rest of our lives. I didn't think they were about to show us any mercy. They knew we were from places they despise and they didn't like us at all. 

I stood waiting behind a thick red line marked clearly on the ground. I was convinced we were being arrested when an officer came out of a random door and took a snapshot of Matty hauling the board bag through the office. He went before me. To my surprise he made it to the next area draggin' the thing nonchalantly through the gate. I was also certain we'd be contained and held for questioning for hours at the very least. I was last in line and waited impatiently. A light flashed from red to green prompting my turn at the counter. As I approached the counter, the man behind the desk watched me closely as I reached for my passport and other travel documents. All I could see were his eyes and up. Everything eles was hidden behind the rather tall booth. The glass between me and him stopped about three inches from the counter. I actually remember the small hallway vividly. The lights above were circular shaped almost polka dotting the roof. The rest of the hallway was covered with mirrors from all angles with a white wall behind the officer's back to disguise his actions. The top of his head fidgeted from one side of the desk to the other as if he was confused. About five long, tense minutes later, I heard three extremely loud stamps as if he was pounding is fist on the his desk in front of him. The sound sent a chilling feeling down my spine. He then slapped my things back on the counter in front of me and proceeded to stare into my eyes making no gestures or sounds. I was quite frightened by his gaze. Finally, he nodded his headed to the left indicating it was O.K. that I move along. I grabbed my belongings as fast as I could and pushed through the metal gate. 

The lady at the next desk didn't like our group one bit. She didn't speak a word of English and spoke to us as if we should have spoken Russian fluently. She showed no mercy. Somehow, about an hour later, we exceeded her post. Not one bag was searched or questioned, not even the board bag which made me wonder what was going on. We followed the automatic opening doors through the building and outside to where we felt we had finally made it into Russia. 

We set out in search of a military town called Murmansk where we were booked to stay the night. The road curved for miles on the same route through snowy hills and dead trees. Around us, we could see large military towers bolting into the sky on the tops of every tall hill. They probably watched for invaders and people coming through the border. I don't really know what their purpose was but it sure made me feel uncomfortable. Right off the bat, I felt like we were being watched the entire time we there. 

The road finally took a turn for the worse and became a wide, muddy, mess. The tracks of other vehicles were present so at first we thought we were on the right road. Without a car in sight for miles, we drove onward hoping for the best. Out of the blue, we came upon a motorcycle with a caddy on the side. Three young boys were on it, two on the bike and one in the caddy. We asked them "Mumansk" and pointed down the road  where we were headed. They nodded their heads and pointed as if we were on the right track. 

The sights on the way were horrendous. Every so often a huge pile of concrete would be on  the side of the road. If it wasn't a pile, it was an abandoned building on its way to becoming that. Old power facilities, army bases, bridges, apartment buildings, you name it.  They were either uninhabited or destroyed. Although that was frightening to see, we were told of a city called Nickel that was supposedly the most polluted town in the world. When we came upon it, we knew right away what it was. It was the first town we saw. All we could see were huge smoke stacks billowing out black smoke, some old, square apartment buildings, and black, petrified trees covering the landscape around it. The snowy hillsides surrounding were smothered in black soot. It really looked like hell from afar. We couldn't believe people could actually live in a place like that. I really felt sorry for that place and the people who had to live there. 

After six hours of driving the completely wrong road, and a couple more dirty, godforsaken towns, we arrived in Murmansk. We got there around one a.m. on a Friday morning. The first thing we saw as we came into town was a car come bolting around a corner in front of us, veer into the curb, and crash. "Welcome to Murmansk," I thought. 

We arrived at our hotel after circling the town a few times and asking a couple locals how to get there. We parked the car in the hotel parking lot, grabbed our mostvaluable belongings, and checked in at the front desk. I recall the girl behind the counter being one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. She was gorgeous. She wasn't that nice to us at first but after a little charm she lightened up and smiled. She took our passports and told us we would have to pick them up in the morning after she registered them. I thought that was kinda sketchy leaving our passports but hey, being a foreigner in Russia is sketchy period. 

Scheduled to leave the next day, Pat Millin and I thought it would be a great idea to go out. We figured we'd check out to the discotecka downstairs in the hotel. Three shots of Vodka and two beers later we were ready to hit the dance floor. It ended up being really fun and we felt totally safe there. There were a bunch of hot chicks there too but the only problem was figuring out which ones weren't prostitutes. They all seemed like they could be so we didn't take our chances. We did a some groovy dancin' though, and sure cut a rug. We definitely put a smile on people's faces which I thought was rad. We ended up going to another club as well where a group of drunk Russians wanted to fight me for some reason. Maybe it was because of my hair or the fact I was from American. Luckily there was one guy in the group who spoke nearly perfect English and he insisted Iwe both get the fuck outta there because some shit was about to go down if we didn't. He took a taxi with us back the hotel. I think he thought it was rad we were from California and he wanted to make sure everything was O.K. He wanted us to know there were some good people in Russia too although we were already certain Russian people were crazy anyways. We said our goodbye's and called it quits on our wild night in Murmansk.

We all woke up around three p.m. the next day in a hungover blur. It was May 1st, a Russian military holiday in Murmansk and people were out and about walking the street for there was nice weather. There was hardly ever nice weather there. A man named Surgey who was an english speaking tourist guide took us around Murmansk for the day and told us a bit about the place. It was really neat to learn about things like why certain buildings were from the Stalin era and others were from the Khrushchev era. We also learned about Russian economy. The fact that every single person  was entitled to their own apartment during the Soviet Union period and that was why most of the same buildings from that time still existed. The reasons some people still wanted communism and some didn't. It was really interesting to hear the point of view from someone actually living there and aware of the history. Our tour ended after a couple of hours. Just before saying goodbye, we bought some unique Russian memorabelia from him. We scored communist Russian military hats, "matryoshka" dolls, some Vodka,  and some funny T shirts. I also bought a vintage 1960s Russian Zenit 35mm camera at our hotel and took some of my first photographs I've ever taken with film.  If any of them came out I planned to put them on here (I still have to get the roll processed). We knew it was a long journey back to the border but we had some other things to take care of before escaping. 

A man who could help us get to the coastline waited for us in a town called Zapoyarnyy, little hellhole town on the way to the border. On our way there we would stop and speak with him about reaching the ocean. Almost the entire coastline in Russia is Military enforced, especially where we wanted to score so we needed to speak with this guy.  Along the road to the small town, we found the road to the beach and debated just going down it. It was either take our chances and charge the dangerous, military enforced road, or meet up with the guy who could possibly help get us there. We decided to keep going for our chances were extremely slim of actually making it to the coastline. We finally arrived in Zapoyarnyy. Zapoyarnyy, a town that just recently, about six months ago, opened to foreigners was really scary. The town was off-limits for years because of the, "pathway to hell," as I called thought of it that exists there. It was a giant hole about six miles deep where they were testing sound waves during WWII to try and produce a large enough sound wave to create an earthquake in the U.S. The people in the place were creepy. We heard from a reliable source that one in three newborns are born with deformities and no one lives past the age of 50 due to of all the pollution that causes cancer in the atmosphere there.  

We eventually met up with the man and discussed the premise of our situation. There was nothing he could do to help our desire to make it to the coast that night, however, he could help us with any future escapades. The problem was, we needed to acquire this strict military permit to get to the coast.  It would take two months of preparation, writing, and inquiring to try and get us permits of that sort from theFSB, previously known as the KGB. He said he could work on it for us and pull some strings. We were quite bummed we couldn't pull off surfing in Russia while we were already there, but we knew that wouldn't stop us from going back, for now we knew what to expect. By the time we were done meeting with him, it was too late to make the border in time to get out. Because it was a Russian holiday, the border would be closing earlier than normal. We were stuck, in Zapoyarnyy of all places.

It was a scary night. We checked into the only hotel that existed there and it was anything but luxurious. The smell of burnt metal filled the air and a hopeless band played for an empty ballroom downstairs. We each got a single room and took the small elevator to the third floor where we were all located. From the window in my room I could see people wandering outside. Wandering like zombies with no hope, no dreams. It was depressing to see people living like this. Uncomfortable, I finally fell asleep.  

We woke up the next morning and booked it for the Russian/Norwegian border. We got to the border and went through a very similar exchange as on the way in to Russia. Once to other side, we were all ready to kiss the ground and thank God we were able to get the fuck outta there!

Going to Russia really opened my eyes. I've always been able to find a reason to complain about where I live or even America in general. The way it's over populated where I live, or how it's so polluted, or how the people are rude. But in reality, I am so lucky to live there. I have so many blessings that other people in the world will never have and that's just the way it is. It's not my fault I was born where I was born. I'd probably hate America too if I were Russian. I would be so jealous and bitter of the way we, as Americans, get to live our lives. I mean, we even got to go to Russia to try and surf. They can't even really go to the coastline, much less surf. I really don't blame them for being mad at the world. They have been suppressed by a corrupt government for so long and things are just now slowly starting to change. From now on I will thank God everyday for the freedoms I have where I've grown up. Despite everyone's negative outlook on USA, I can honestly say I am proud to be an American.


Flying said...

did you change the blog adress or what ?
anyway, I found it again and that's the good news !
I'll have to come back tomorrow though to read everything.
rad !

Sea Walk said...

haha yeah sorry about that! It's now. Thanks for checkin' it out! I hope you like it.