jumping point for the trans-Siberian Railroad…
Checking in at LAX I remember how bad the American Airline companies have become. Only after traveling around the world do you realize that the American consumer is getting the short end of the stick. For example, Turkish Airlines service, meals, & fares rival any American carrier; they have great fares, a good meal, and their staff is friendly and helpful. The last flight I took on American Airlines I thought that the entire crew needed a serious attitude adjustment. On most American carriers, not only do they NOT feed you, you have to pay extra for a checked bag. I don’t see why they don’t include the bag price, add a meal, and just raise the prices ten or twenty dollars? It all seems so silly.
As I put my passport away, I look again at my Russian visa. I have only 30 days; 30 days to get across that great big country. To put it into some perspective, Los Angeles and New York are about 3,000 miles apart. Just part of the way across Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok is 6,000 miles. And the trains only move at about 55 miles per hour… Despite the distance, getting the visa was tough – it seems that Moscow is still living in the cold war; anyone with a U.S. passport is still suspected of being CIA or a spy. To get a visa, you first have to be “invited” to Russia. Your “host” must make a formal letter, with all the requisite stamps and approvals and send it back to you. You submit this form along with your visa application, photos (2), and fees to the Russian Embassy or Consulate. $300 later, you have a visa. Almost no one makes the invitation forms themselves. Instead, we rely on travel agencies who do it for a nominal fee, say $40. In the end, you get your visa, but with added bureaucracy, time, and expense. After arriving in Russia, you must “register” yourself with the local police within 3 days. Every time you move, you must re-register. If you are staying at a hotel, they will usually do this for you. But in my case, where I’m staying with a family in Yoshkar-Ola, we will have to go to the local police department. Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that… But, it’s close to impossible for Russians to get Visas to the US, so, I guess I shouldn’t complain.
Poland’s LOT airlines was late with my connection, so I was stuck for a day in Warsaw. They put me up in the Courtyard by Marriot – it was actually in the airport parking lot so I didn’t have to go far. Polish jokes aside, everyone in Ukraine tells me LOT airlines is always late… I wonder if those jokes have an origin somewhere in reality?
Odessa, Ukraine is as I remember it. It is a sleepy beach community in south Ukraine on the Black Sea. It is a popular tourist destination for the CIS countries (former USSR) and there are visitors from Russia and other parts of the old empire. In the city center, there is a main walking street. It is similar to the Riverwalk in San Antonio or 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California. The streets are lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and of course, one McDonalds. Only in the east can you find a McDonalds full of women in size 3-5 – LOL.
Walking the streets, the Ukrainian women look as though they have just stepped off of a Paris fashion show. Everyone wears 4” heels, and curve hugging clothes that make all of the visiting men suffer from a rare form of whiplash. The local men, long accustomed to the beautiful women are long since immune and don’t even seem to notice the beauty that surrounds them. Oleg, my friend and local guide tells me it takes about 6 weeks before you don’t notice them anymore. I find it hard to believe.
While visiting Odessa for about 2 weeks, I decided to go to the Ballet. The Odessa Opera House is an iconic landmark in Ukraine and is a well-known landmark in Ukraine. It is a beautiful building and the inside wood is gilded in gold leaf. It is a custom for married couples in Odessa to go to the Opera House to have their photos taken after the wedding. There is a beautiful garden and fountain on the Opera House grounds. I went to the Opera in Minsk in 2002, I believe the tickets for box seats were $2 US. For first row second section (close enough, but not too close that you have to stretch your neck – considered the “best” seats) at the Odessa Ballet set me back $5. It is wonderful to experience world-class culture in the professional arts for such a great price.
I can gladly say that for two weeks in Odessa, I didn’t do much at all. I ate, slept, sipped coffee, relaxed, people watched, exercised a bit, and practiced my Russian. After 4 ½ years in the Middle East, it was nice to just sit down and do nothing. Oleg rented a nice apartment for me. It is a spacious place, maybe eight or nine hundred square feet including a fourier, bedroom, living room, fully stocked kitchen, bathroom, and even a balcony. The price is about ½ of what I paid for a smaller hotel room on my last visit to Odessa. With the kitchen and the fridge, I’m able to stock food and make my own breakfast and cook my own coffee. Some days I go to the café, but it is nice to have breakfast still wearing pajamas and watching TV (albeit it is in Russian and I “maybe” understand every 10th word). The apartment also has Wi-Fi internet making it very convenient and comfortable.
One day my interpreter/Russian teacher and I ran into her mother in the park. I was “forced” to pose for a photo with “Mom.”
Aside from high fashion, Ukraine shares one characteristic with Russia – the never-ending disco music. No matter where you go, you will be surrounded by driving disco, techno, or house music – the kind of music that has a steady beat, techno keyboard sounds, and a futuristic sound you might hear in a rave or night club. It doesn’t matter if you are in a clothes store, at the park, in a taxi, in a sushi restaurant, or in the hotel lobby. Chances are, you’ll hear some kind of disco music. Without fail, if you climb into a taxi, as soon as the car starts moving, the taxi driver will turn in some disco music for you. It is almost as if the Russians find comfort in disco and the taxi driver is trying to make you feel at ease. I don’t mind it sometimes, but when you’re at the park enjoying the squirrels and birds, the driving disco from the shoe store on the corner just spoils the mood. And in a sushi restaurant? It just seems very non-traditional Japanese.
I am surprised at the bank advertisements. Grievna deposits are paying 30% and Dollar/Euro deposits are paying 13-15%. The government of Ukraine insures all accounts to US $20,000 and many European and American banks have branches here. So, a Citibank deposit in Odessa, denominated in US dollars pays about 15%. Many foreigners are coming and investing in Ukraine. The credit crunch is global, but it seems that some countries are willing to pay to attract capital. Even marketing has come to the eastern block; I see a huge billboard that reads in Russian “Ukraine bank and us” next to a family looking at their bank statement.
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