Ramblings of a Slaint

Ramblings of my life in India and around the world

Sunday, August 31, 2008

end of the tour

Our tour officially ended today at noon. We are still here in St Petersburg waiting for our night train to Riga. We had thought we'd go into the city center again today and walk around, but it was pouring rain and now it is dry but freezing cold! I think Dasha told me it was 9 celcius. burr. So we are staying around the hotel, just relaxing, eating and spending the rest of our money!

It was sad to say goodbye to the rest of the group today. Granny's friends (well mine too..) left this morning and she was all sad to say bye. But perhaps they will get her over to South Africa. I have been wanting to go to Africa for ages, but Granny has never had much interest. Now perhaps she'll go..or maybe they will all meet in Europe sometime. And then the biggest bunch of our group left at 1:30 - the girls i hung out with most of the trip. I feel that chances are i'll see some of them again or at the least, we are all on facebook, so we'll keep in touch. Maybe i have just gotten used to saying goodbye to people, so i know you never know what will happen!

I hung out with Dasha (our tour leader) a bit today running around looking for chocolates for men.... finally found them. What are chocolates for men? It is a regular Nestle candy bar, but basically they had an advertising campaign here saying that if a woman got these chocolates for their men, the men would all of the sudden learn to be sweet, caring and compassionate - bringing flowers, etc. haha. so of course we needed some to take back!

Today in saying our goodbyes, one of the girls i just adored during the trip told me that she didn't have any grandparents anymore, so Granny is now like her Granny too! It was super sweet. Everyone really seemed to enjoy granny on the trip. perhaps they wanted to go a bit faster sometimes, but regardless there were also two other ladies on the tour who weren't too far behind Granny's age. I thought the mix of ages made it a really great group. we had some older wiser ladies and some younger ones as well.

Off to Riga tonight to see Sylvia. I am really excited to see her. It has been so great to be able to meet up with people who have lived in India - I feel I get a good view on their lives now and it sort of makes me appreciate what we have in India seeing all of them miss it so much!
Will update again soon!


Saturday, August 30, 2008

STP - day 2 (1/2 really)

Another long day in store for us, but again we are on the bus! Our first stop is St Isac's Cathedral that we saw from the outside yesterday. Today we actually went inside which was great. It was beautiful inside and quite large compared to the other cathedral's we'd seen in Russia so far. We heard a bit about it's construction, but mostly we just gazed up at the amazing dome and inside art.After a while here, we then headed to Peter & Paul's Fortress. I wasn't sure how much I would like this, but I found this to be one of the most enjoyable things we'd done so far. The fortress is actually on it's own little island in STP and houses the Russian Mint, a church and some other stuff that I am sure I was told but don't remember! We all did our group photo - it's pretty funny because we are all super bundled up! It was absolutely freezing outside and we were warned in the morning that it would be a cold day, so we bundled up as much as we could.
Inside the church are tons of graves/coffins. The one that was the most interesting to me was the area at the back that housed the grave of the last Tsar of russia. Apparently his family was scattered all over Russia and it's only been in the last few years that they have managed to find most of his families's remains and bring them here. It was strange again in that there seemed to be no security and not a lot of grandeur which you might expect for the last Tsar of Russia!!

Enjoying our time here, but needing to move on, we headed over to our traditional Russian lunch that was waiting for us. It was actually pretty good. I even managed to eat some vegetarian Borsch soup (beet root soup). It was good too.. My main course was a bit of a let down though - it was just a few tossed vegetables! haha. apparently they don't quite know what to do with vegetarians!

Our last stop on our day long tour was the Peterhof Gardens. Too bad it wasn't a sunny warm day! But Granny, Dasha and I enjoyed exploring it anyhow. It is full of gold plated fountains, tons of trees, greenery, etc. This is something I really miss while living in India. we just don't get outdoor beauty like this and it's really unfortunate. We were lucky too that Dasha came along with us since she was able to tell us about the different trick fountains where if you sit on a bench you will get sprayed with water or if you walk over certain rocks you get sprayed.

We also had a nice view over the Gulf of Finland. Granny got so excited thinking she could see Finland across the water.. but it was just STP :(

Since we were quite a bit out of the city it took a while for us to get back to town. As soon as we got back, it was time to head out to our final event of the day - the Cussak performance of traditional/folk Russian dance and music. I thought this would be cheesy, but since the whole gang was going, I figured I better participate as well since it is the last night! At first it was a bit dumb, but it ended up being super cool and I think I prefered this over the ballet. Those dancers are amazing. You know the ones that get super low to the ground and kick their legs up? So amazing. They even pulled one of our own up there, Amit! He was mortified.. and i was scared to death for the rest of the show thinking they would then pull a girl up - thank goodness they didn't!

It was already getting a bit late by the time we got back from the Cussack show, so we had to have our final night's dinner there at the hotel restaurant. Again a combo mix of Sushi and Italian (seems they like to combine those two restaurants in STP!). I again went for Italian, but it was a mistake!! Should have done the sushi.

It was a great last night though and it was already getting sad to think that we'd all be going our seperate ways the following day. Granny got up and gave a little speech which was excellent. made me all teary again (i had bumped my bruise earlier in the day and seriously broke down in tears it hurt so bad!!).

Most of us 'youngins' decided to go across the road to the supermarket where there was also a bar for a final farewell. It was a funny place. We think they were having a talent show type thing when we got there. But we can't be certain.. But by the end of the night, just random people were going up on stage to showcase their dance skills. It was hilarious.
And sadly our night had to end. I knew I'd see most people on Sunday since we didn't leave til the night, so I saved my farewells for then.


Friday, August 29, 2008

STP - day 2

Today sort of was a whirlwind honestly. But luckily we had a bus for most of it! Our grand tour of St Petersburg started out slowly today with us sitting in traffic for over an hour. That was not fun! I would have prefered to just take the metro into town and have the bus pick us up there or something.
Our first stop was St Isacs Cathedral. It was nice and all, but at the point we had no real idea about it, so we just took our photos and moved on to the next sight. I think the next was a view of Peter & Paul's fortress from the water. It was nice, but freezing cold outside, so we hustled ourselves back to the van as soon as we could! And then to a souvenir shop to pick up some items and then time for St Basil's copy called the Church of Spilled Blood. It was nice, but not as inspiring as St Basil in Moscow. Then to lunch. We went to an all you can eat place. Everyone loved it.. but I kind of would have preferred to go down the street with Grant & Charlotte to McDonalds for my fish sandwich as there wasn't much for me to eat at the 'all you can eat' place! But no biggie.. i'd been able to eat most places.

The rest of the afternoon was reserved for our visit to the Hermitage museum. I'm not a big museum person, but some museum's you have to visit since they are so known and thats the Hermitage. It's a massive palace that is now a museum housing art from all over the world. Apparently if you spent even 5 seconds looking at each peice in the museum it would take over 5 years to see everything! Obviously we did a quicker version!

Some of us even did a quicker quicker version and left after about an hour to go do a bit of exploring on our own. I ended up finding the Soviet posters book that I had wanted in Moscow and I got a few posters too. I was very happy and felt that I could finally be finished with my shopping.

After our little break, it was time to meet up for our evening boat ride through St Petersburg. Unfortunately it was absolutely freezing, but luckily the boat had an inside area where we all sat. I ventured outside here and there to get photos, but otherwise it was just way too cold with our limited amount of winter wear on.

Another long day, but at least we weren't as pooped as we were in Moscow. Granny decided to head back with a group of people while I stayed in the city center to venture around. Granny's group got messed up on the train somehow and ended up going 6 stations out of the way and had to have a little 14 yr old girl (who apparently spoke great english) guide them back to the right line! I'm so glad this didn't happen to us b/c we left town with only 30 minutes to spare before the trains shut off - we would have been totally screwed!
Our little adventure wasn't much better though. We had another lesson in the wonderful customer service industry of Russia. The first bar we were at was fine except you almost had to beg to be served. After a while we started looking for a place to eat dinner and somehow ended up at another Italian place. It looked great an all, but it seriously took almost 2 hrs to get just half of our orders. It was then that we realized that we didn't have much time before the metro stopped so we had to cause a bit of a ruckus to get our remaining pizza's. grr. Another lesson.. don't eat out with a big group and expect to be served in a reasonable amount of time!

Our next day is another long day couch tour, so shouldn't be too strenous.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

welcome to STP - 1/2 of day 1!

Today we rode the bus from Pscov to St Petersburg. It took about 5 hours, but really wasn't so bad since it seemed that most of us seemed to sleep the entire journey. Although we did have to stop a few times so our guide from the day before could buy wild mushrooms on the roadside. Strange. And they were very odd mushrooms - yellow and long.

Arrived to STP just in time to have a quick lunch which turned into a nightmare for most people. Half the group ordered Chicken Kiev only to find that it was still raw. People were freaking out.. but managed to get some food anyhow. We ate quickly and then went back to the room to freshen up for the evening's ballet performance.

I had planned to wear this new dress that Granny had bought me in Berlin. I'd been saving it all the trip so far. In our room, we only had one small mirror, so I wanted to get up on a chair so I could see myself fully. Big mistake! I got on the chair, had a quick look before completly crashing off the chair onto the floor. I hurt my leg really bad and had a slight sting in the wrist and ribcage. Not good at all. But I had to act not too hurt since the look on Granny's face made me think she might have a heart attack right there!! I knew nothing was broken, but that my leg was going to be seriously bruised.

I finished getting ready and wobbled on downstairs for the ballet. No one quite believed me when I said my leg was swollen and bruised. But by the time we got to the ballet and I went to the restroom my entire upper thigh was black and blue. :(

Anyhow.. the ballet was interesting. I am pretty sure this was my first ballet. The building wasn't so fabulous, but we tried to overlook that and the fact that we had seats way in the back. I have to say that I wasn't so impressed with it. I felt that the ladies were a bit out of time with one another and they didn't seem to go with the music much. The first set was 1 hr, followed by a 30 minute set and then a 15 minute set. The last two set's were much better and got us much more into the performance. I could have seriously slept through the first set though!

We were all starving afterwards, but our bus driver didn't understand a word we were saying or else he just kept ignoring our pleas to go to McDonalds! haha. But I guess it was for the best - we needed to get to bed for our big tour of St Petersburg the following morning.

Sleeping was not easy with my leg hurting so badly, but i somehow managed to stay on my back the entire night rather than tossing and turning like usual!


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The train to... Pscov

Our train journey was an adventure that is for sure. I don't think our tour guide Dasha was prepared for the moaning and whining that went on at the beginning of our journey. We had tickets for all of us, but we were not all sleeping in the same birth so it got a little chaotic. Granny got on first and chose the first seat - which ended up being one of the worst. She believed it when Dasha told her that we could change later. Me.. I know how these things work and you never get to change!! But we managed and delt with it. We were the first seats right by the door and bathroom. I thought the problem would be people opening and closing the door all night, but that wasn't an issue because they never closed the door!!! Which meant that the light was shining in my face all night long. Grr. Granny also didn't get much sleep mostly because she would wake up each time the train stopped - which was all the time. And for those of us on the upper bunks, it was hot with no air circulation.

So basically a group of 15 tired, dirty and hungry travellers got off in Pscov not in the best of moods. We had little time to check in to our hotel change clothes and then head out for our day. I had borrowed a tank top from Barbara, which I promptly lost between the lobby and the 4th floor. I spent our 20 minutes freaking out trying to find that rather than actually getting ready for the day ahead. Luckily someone else had found the tank and returned it to Barbara, so all ended well.

Our first stop was the old monastry outside of Pscov. They were in preparations for a big festival the next day, so it was a bit interesting to see how it was all put together. They were laying a blanket of flowers that the procession would walk on. We were required to put on a black skirt over our clothes and then also cover our head. Unfortunately we weren't told in advance or else I could have brought the shawl that I brought all the way from india for this reason!!
And of course the OntheGo Tour brochure made this place sound fantastic with the burial caves, etc. But it really wasn't that interesting and we had no time to wonder around ourselves, so it sort of seemed a waste of time in my opinion. But others seemed to enjoy it a bit.
After being hustled through quickly, we were then taken to the Pscov Kremlin and driven past quickly! We did manage to get out for a moment and have a group photo taken, but that was about all. Then off to the other side of Pscov to have lunch and begin our sauna (banya) experience. It was a tiny little wooden cabin with a room to eat and one room to change and the actual sauna in the middle. it was nice, but not at all what I was expecting. I thought it was going to be some super cool sauna experience.

We did have a great time though. We went into the sauna in groups. Got super hot.. came out and splashed ourselves with cold water, then repeated the process. But this next time, we were beaten with twigs by Dasha! That was a bit interesting. I didn't feel like my life had changed though. But then.. we were told to run outside and jump in the freezing cold lake. Yowzers.. that was ice cold. I felt my whole body go numb within seconds!

Then it was time for the actual lunch. Unfortunately it was all meat, so I didn't get to eat anything :( But I enjoyed playing with the 16 stray kittens outside and feeding them the salmon which was supposed to be for me.

Not the best day on the tour for sure, but we all still had a blast. Then it was time to go back home to shower and prepare for dinner. We had a group dinner that was included in our tour. It was good, if not a bit quick with the service! As soon as we all sat down, our plates began to arrive and within minutes of getting that our ice cream deserts started to come! A few people freaked out and told them to hold the ice cream, so luckily ours didn't melt in the process.

After dinner the youngin's decided to hit the town... not much to do here except a bowling alley/entertainment center or a disco. We opted for the first option. It was great fun. Bowling was excellent even though most of us sucked, then it was air hockey and just watching the locals in action. A good opportunity for all of us to really get ot know one another. I headed home around 1 but others stayed a bit later I think.

The next morning we were told breakfast was from 8 -9:30. So of course those of us who went out, decided to go down around 9. Well... not such a good idea apparently. We thought it was buffet style like our other hotels, but it was not. So our meal had been set out at 8 and was sitting there cold as a cucumber. We ate it without complaint, but when we asked for coffee this is when we received the true Russian hospitality. We were given the rolling eyes and loud sigh and told not possible. We continued to ask for it and finally got some. We let it sit and cool down a bit, added our sugar and cream and then went to drink it. It was COLD! When we then asked for HOT coffee.. we got more eye rolling and then our waitress went to the manager who was deeply engrossed in some russian soap on tv and started yelling about us. She was pointing our way, yelling, eye rolling and carrying on. It was pretty funny actually. Of course the manager told her to get us hot coffee. After we'd finished breakfast we had only a little amount of time before our bus was set to leave, but still no coffee. So I decided I would leave. She of course brought the coffee as I reached the door. I left anyhow fed up with this wonderful service, but my friend stayed and bore the brunt of her anger. Of course this just gave us a great story to talk about the whole day and for the rest of the trip! But it also clearly outlined how they do not care about their customers in the least!

So that was our experience in Pscov...not really worth the train journey there. I think we all would have prefered an extra day in either moscow or stp.
And tomorrow.. we board the bus for our 5 hr journey to STP.


Monday, August 25, 2008

moscow - day 2 & 3

After an exhausting first day in Moscow, we were happy to look at the itinerary and see that we only had one thing booked today and then the rest of the day was ours! Our morning began at the famous Kremlin where the government of Russia still resides. I can't remember all the history that was given to us that day.. but I do recall that it used to be the center of the village and that the entire area was crowded with old wooden homes that were set fire during one of Russia's many wars!I thought that we'd get to go into some buildings or something, but instead we just go to walk around in the inside of the Kremlin walls and see the insides of the church there. But I guess with Putin hard at work within one of the buildings, figuring out what to do about the war with Georgia there was no chance we'd get to go inside!! But I must say there was a total lack of security presence inside the Kremlin. We weren't frisked as we went in, although we did go through metal detectors and I had my camera looked into. Besides that, the area was just filled with tourists like us!
We spent a good amount of time hearing the history of the Kremlin by our hilarious tour guide. She kept saying funny things that some might take as being anti-Russian. She made a comment about how Russia loves war, but is never prepared for them. She said that since Russia had signed a peace agreement with the Nazi's that they just left their borders unarmed..and then were shocked when Nazi troops were close to closing in on Moscow. She was totally different than our guide yesterday who seemed very pro-Russia. Interesting.

But again, we got very little information on what we wanted to hear most about - the Soviet Era. I guess perhaps they just don't know alot about it themselves to be honest.

After our short, but long tour of the Kremlin, the rest of the day was ours. Granny and I headed off to the canteen for our favorite lunch. I of course got the same food as the day before, but Granny tried all new things. She's adventurous like that! After lunch a few people were heading back to the hotel area, so Granny thought it might be best if she went with them since I had a long day planned for myself. I was going to see a friend who used to live in Mumbai to pick up our train tickets and then stay in the city center for night time so I could see all the buildings lit up. And the sun doesn't set until well after 9pm.

Granny headed back with a whole group of people and I ventured over to Hazel's place. I had hoped that by visiting someone who lived there I would get a better feel for Moscow and perhaps see something besides the Red Square. No such luck! Hazel lives on the road directly opposite the Red Square, so I didn't see much more of the city than that!. But it was great to see her place and her twin babies. And btw, her nanny was from Georgia, so that was a bit interesting. We mostly caught up on mutal friends and then she told me about life in Moscow. She's only been there about 8 months, but she hates it and is ready to leave again. She re-iterated what we had already felt - the people aren't so friendly, there is no service industry whatsoever and the prices are insane. For her it is also difficult as there are no lifts to be found anywhere so she can't take the metro since it's underground and can barely cross most of the streets since the street crossing is also below ground. And to top it off, when she is out walking the babies, there are often cars parked on the sidewalks so she can't walk there either.

This little visit made me realize that I probably wouldn't be so happy living in Moscow either. Although I can get up and down the stairs - it's just the not so friendly staff at places that would drive me insane. I'd probably be shot within a week for yelling at people!!

After our visit and my almost run over by a porche, bmw and mercedes all three trying to turn at the intersection at once I met up with some of the rest of our tour group for some dinner and drinks. We hung out at a cafe near red square for a while - watching a totally drunk man try to make his way to the door. It was our own little soap opera for a bit. After that, we decided to venture back towards where I was earlier in the day to find a place for dinner. Of course it was all a bit overpriced, but where we ended up had excellent food...Italian! After an hour wait for our change, we finally left close to 11 at night. Now it was time for me to get my night shots of the buildings. Oops.. I forgot my good lens and my tripod. Oh well.. still managed to get some decent photos.
And then the long journey back home on the metro. Since we can't read the signs, nor do we understand or even hear the announcements for the trains, we are forced to count stops. This is a lesson in concentration. If you have ever used subways much, you know that you can easily get carried away in conversation and forget how many stops you've passed. To combat this, all of us would hold our hands up with the number of the stop so that we didn't forget. And it worked.. we made it right back to the hotel without a hitch.

Wednesday - today is also a free day. I am in need of a swimsuit (swimmer, swim costume, etc) for the sauna experience coming up tomorrow. I don't know how I missed this when packing. So Barbara and I have decided that we will see the flea market by our hotel in the am and then head into town.

Oh man.. it is blustery cold and rainy today though! It is seriously cold. We managed to potter around the market buying all sorts of crap. I think i got a million things that I don't need, but missed out on the one thing that I would have loved. The russian book of old posters. Two other guys in the group got it and showed me later, but it was too late to go back :( I think it must not have been up when we were there, because all i saw were nesting dolls and christmas ornaments!

After spending all of our money, Barbara and I head to town to eat at our canteen for the last time. It was still yummy even on day 3! Did a bit of swim suit shopping, but gave up and decided I could just wear a tank top with undies. Heading back to our hotel was misery though. It was seriously freezing cold. And for some reason my shoes leak water inside. I don't know how this happened, but apparently there is a little hole at the bottom or at the seam. Oh so sad.

But we made it back in time to dry our socks under the hand dryer and retrieve our bags from the luggage room. And then it was time to head off for our night train to Pscov. it would be most people's first experience on a train such as this. Dasha, our tour guide, said it was exotic. but after hearing her descriptions, I realized it is just like the Indian trains I ride here. Uh oh.. the group is not going to be happy about this! haha.

More tomorrow after our journey.. all 50 people on one carriage with only 2 toilets as some of the ladies were obsessed with saying.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

moscow - day 1

On our first day of the tour, we absolutely pooped ourselves out! We started off a bit earlier than our original itinerary had stated, but it was because we were going to sneak in a quick look at Lenin's dead body! We waited in a long line, which apparently was quite short since it was a Sunday and was still early. We gave all of our belongings to Dasha our tour leader whom we had just barely met the previous night. Cameras, purses, basically everything of value we had to hand over since almost nothing was allowed inside Lenin's Mausoleum. We walked down some stairs to a cold dark room where we were admonished for talking and for putting hands in pockets! ok... Then we circled around his dead body. Not sure if it was really him or not. Apparently every so often they have to do 'maintenance' on his body which takes several months. During those times, a wax body is put in his place. I'm sure they have probably created a perfect copy in wax, so we wouldn't know the difference. I'd say you'd have to go once a month for a few years to see if you ever noticed any differences. But it was a bit eerie seeing his dead body there!

After that little intro to Russia, we walked a bit further on the Red Square to the colorful and beautiful St Basils Cathedral. I knew from my first look that I would end up taking hundreds of photos of this building. It's absolutely beautiful and feels like candyland or something from a fairy tale. Someone told me that this was the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland. Not sure though. We met our first local tour guide here and she gave us a ton of history on the area, the Red Square, St Basils, etc. But of course I don't remember much at all. I do know that the cathedral was built by Ivan the terrible and that it has 9 domes, which is apparently 9 different 'churches'?? or worship halls perhaps. Anyhow, I couldn't pay much attention to the guide since I was captivated by St Basils! We walked around Red Square for a while learning (or hearing in my case) the history of it all. Then we pottered over to a bridge by the water to see the Kremlin from another angle. After this our tour took us through the old GUM Government Department store which is now a high end mall. It was beautiful. Then on to one of the main streets just outside of the Red Square where we saw the KGB offices from afar. Its too bad I never went back there to see it close up. I really wanted to learn more about that - but as most things associated with the Soviet Era, it was just glossed over.
Even though thus far we had not done a lot of walking, it was the standing around that was already starting to kill my feet. Granny seemed to be managing fine, but i was already getting tired and hungry. It was after 1 when we finally were told we could go eat some lunch. We were pointed back towards the GUM where there was a Soviet era type canteen where we could get lunch for a decent price. I think the whole group headed there. And thank goodness we did. It was excellent. I got way too much food the first day - it was like a Luby's Cafeteria where you just go down the aisle picking up what you want. I love these type of places because I can actually find things to eat! I got apple strudel, apple/carrot salad, plain crepe, apple crepe, mashed potatoes and some brown bread. I was stuffed, but happy!

We had a little bit of free time before meeting up with the group again, so Granny and I just wandered around the mall a bit, checking things out. Then we met up with most of the group again at 6 for our tour of the subways. Of course that was a little bit delayed because Dasha recommended that we walk 30 minutes to this arty district called Arbat. Of course we took a long long long route and it ended up taking 1 1/2 hrs! Needless to say we were all pooped. Granny was still being a trooper, but I think she had just about had it. If we had been there a bit longer and she knew the way home she would have gone for sure. After that long walk, we finally did a quick tour of the subways.
The subways are insane there.. they are decorated like art museums. Not all of them, but the main ones for sure. Of course we were told we couldn't take photos since it is attached to the military. Urgh.. really this city needs to be a little more tourist focused I think. They could make good money doing subway tours!

We got home late and were thoroughly exhausted. granny just went up straight to bed. I did a little internet (see previous post) and then ate a snack before heading to bed.

I have to say that initially I wasn't that impressed with Moscow. I mean I loved the Red Square and all, but overall, I just didn't feel any real connection to the city at this point. Even looking back now, I am not sure if I would really ever want to go back to Moscow - I certainly don't think I want to live there like I had previously thought.... although that canteen is pretty yummy so maybe I could ;) But I think that as exhausted as Granny was she actually was quite impressed with Moscow. She had pictured it as very communist looking - dark, grey old buildings, but it was really colorful and beautiful instead. Off to sleep to prepare for another day tomorrow!


quick update from moscow

We arrived to Moscow yesterday and were scooped up and taken to our hotel 'complex'. thank goodness we got a tour is all i can say! getting out of berlin was easy - well getting to the airport was at least. there were 3 train workers who saw us get on the train and when it was the final stop they took our bags from us and walked us to the lift, then across the street and even put our bags on the waiting bus!! that is hospitality. it was super nice of them and not expected at all.

glad that it went smoothly to that point, so that we weren't stressed too terribly much when we finally got to the check in counter after 30+ minutes. i was told right away that there was a problem with my visa. the sweating began and granny just about had a heart attack when i jokingly said she might have to go without me! we were taken out of the line and directed to someone else. still not knowing what the problem was except that perhaps my dates weren't correct and i didn't have a return flight? but what problem is this of the checkin staff of a german airline?!?

after a few anxious minutes waiting (well 20 to be exact) we were given the go ahead. apparently they had never seen a visa for russia that was issued in India, so they were not sure if it was real or not. After some calls and probably a check on their computer they found it was real and we were then checked in. shoo... glad that went ok. thought i might have to stay a while longer in berlin (which i wouldn't have minded actually!)

boarded and landed fine. immigration was also fine. no issues there. couldn't find our ride immediately and i started to panic.. but then granny found him. yeah! we checked in, ate some outrageously expensive food at the 'tour group buffet' and had our group meeting.

i love our actual guide, Dasha, but the initial lady who was speaking to us was super annoying and met all of those stereotypes that we think of. But she was also funny at times. obsessed with vodka - which is pretty funny considering that about half of our group doesn't drink!! haha. and she told us to put our passports in our panties, no matter if it came out smelly or not. uhhh... anyhow.

the group is cool. there are 3 people from South Africa, a few ozzies, kiwi, 1 irish lady and us. good age group and everyone seems super cool. only noticed today that there are only 2 guys - one of which is indian origin!

had a super super long day today at the red square which has absolutely pooped us out. visited lenin's dead embalmed body which was strange, but kind of cool. saw the color st basil's church with the onion domes and did way too much walking. granny was a trooper. i will write about it later. my internet time is up now and i need to get some dinner before crashing. another busy day tomorrow.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Granny in Berlin

Granny arrived on her 75th birthday! I had been stressing out about what to do to mark the occasion but decided it was probably best to be flexible and keep things open depending on how she felt after her trans-Atlantic flight. She seemed pretty good - a bit tired, but otherwise ready to venture out into Berlin. She remarked a few days later that she had seen more of Berlin underground than above ground.. probably so. I probably should have made more detailed plans of what to do each day so that we weren't always on trains! But I just love the metro there and we certainly needed to get our moneys worth from our day passes :)

Our first stop was Checkpoint Charlie. And Granny immediately bought stuff! She's good at that - not indecisive like me. I always think - oh that would be nice to get, but I'll wait until later and see if I see it somewhere else. Of course you don't always see it later, which also means I usually don't end up buying anything! We didn't do the museum, but probably should have. It didn't look too busy, but I was afraid if we stopped for long that Granny would start passing out from the jetlag!!
From CC we walked on to one remnant of the wall. Mostly Granny and I were just catching up. And she was telling me about Walt (Gramps's brother in law) who was honored in a small town in Germany for saving their town during WWII. I was so amazed to hear this story. I think that is what was great about travelling with Granny - stories that I would never hear otherwise came up to the surface. So I have a family member who has a statue dedicated to them in Freidberg Germany! How cool is that.
After walking for a while more, we decided to stop for coffee to give us a pick me up. After the coffee, we had enough energy to walk through Potsdamer Platz and on to the Memorial to Murdered Jews. I just love this memorial. I think I could go a million times and take a million photos. It's just a really moving and cool memorial. I know there was a lot of controversy about it being put on prime real estate, but I think it is important for Berlin to really come to grips with what happened and put memorials in prominent locations so that people don't forget the atrocities of WWII.
And then we came up to the Brandenburg Gate. I'm not a very good tour guide since I don't specifically know the history of all of the sights in Berlin.. I just know my way around :p It was getting a little late in the afternoon and Granny was starting to fade. She had decided she wanted schnitzel for her bday dinner. I messaged all the people I know in Berlin and of course the wonderful Anja gave us a great recommendation. On the train we went and to the cafe. It was an adorable cafe and had excellent food. Granny got her schnitzel and I got a yummy pesto/goat cheese pizza. yum.
And then off to the apartment. Granny actually ended up staying up quite late considering. I think we finally went to bed around 10:30 or so! And she even slept in the next day as well. It was good that she was able to get on schedule so quickly.

Our second day in Berlin started off with a walk to Bergmanstrasse near the apartment. We sat out at a sidewalk cafe having a little breakfast and people watching. The sun was out and it just felt like it was going to be a great day. Of course we did a little shopping too! I found a cute black dress that I just loved and Granny got it for me as a gift. So sweet! Then we decided to head to the other side of town to a cute little cafe I had gone to with Andy & Anja. Anna Blooms. They had amazing food. I got a spinach quiche and granny got fish soup and as an extra we got some cold savory pancakes that were excellent. I am constantly surprised by the quality of vegetarian food that I get in Berlin these days. I remember 8 years ago all I ate was bread and cheese and french fries!
Spent some more time walking around Prenzlaurberg before heading back towards the apartment. I don't think we did much that day other than eat and just relax! But it was a great day by my standards!
Our last full day in Berlin started out with a trip out to the Berlin Wall Memorial. I had never been to that memorial before, so it was cool to visit. We could see the no mans land area that existed between the two walls as well as the spot where a church stood in that area that was destroyed by the Russians. After spending the morning there, we headed a cafe to have brunch - all you can eat for 3 euro! Bargain. Granny tried all the local favorites and love it all. I just ate up the eggs, bread and cheese as usual! After a little stroll we headed to Potsdamer Platz to check out an art exhibit that we read about in the paper. It wasn't so great, but we met Andy & Anja there which was nice. We headed over to a little coffee shop and then did a little shopping in the mall's bookstore! The one thing I didn't need to lug around for 2 weeks was 3 more books, but I just couldn't resist!!

After our little coffee, Granny I took the bus to Andy & Anja's place. I got lured in at the sock shop and ended up buying two awesome pairs of tights (which later turned out to not fit me!). Then hung out with A&A for a while before heading to dinner and getting Granny her last schnitzel in Germany!
It was a great night to end the beginning of our trip! I was so glad to be able to show Granny the Berlin that I love. I really do want to move there and now even Granny wants me to move there so she can come visit and hang out at cafes all day!!


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

sans internet

I am officially without internet and must rely on the kindness of people! I am at a local English language bookshop in my neighborhood using theirs. it is not easy though as the german keyboard is a bit different! but i am managing.

quick update, mostly so i dont forget.

went to ikea yesterday and bought some curtains for india. then went home for a nap. later met up with the gang in prenzlauberg for tea and then falafel. thought it would be a quiet night, but then we ended up going out to Tacheles. here is the photo from 8 years ago when i visited. it is now a ton of cafes and bars, but still looks pretty much the same outside. we hung out there for a while until it was time to go back and pack up folo for the airport.

today i have done almost nothing. cleaned the apartment and then went to do laundry. i managed to figure out the laundry machines and then even was showing other foreigners how to do it! typical me...or rainman me as andys brother calls me! he was all chatty cathy with me until i said i had a boyfriend and then this guz wouldnt even look at me. weirdo. and he was juggling in the laundrymat.

then off to rest and do some grocery shopping. not too eventful. but berlin is mellow in the day so who knows what i'll get up to tonight!
Granny arrives in the a.m.... more updates later.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Yesterday we had a slow day again, but managed to do some stuff. We went over to Andy & Anja's to drop our gifts and then ended up having some breakfast there as more and more people began arriving. Then we headed off with Andy's brother and sister to see some sights. We did a boat cruise down one of the canals. It was ok... the speaker was annoying because we could never understand her English or German! But it was relaxing and we got to see stuff we would go back to later.

Then off to the East Side Gallery - this is the longest stretch of the former Berlin Wall. It has been filled with grafitti and art. After all of our walking around, we headed back to the apartment for a little rest. this turned out to be bad - we ended up going to sleep and staying in the rest of the night! I think we probably needed it though. I did some organizing of the suitcases since Paul leaves on Tue and he watched tv. Feels like home already :)

Today we went to Ikea and bought a few things to take back to India. Now we are resting before Paul's final night out in Berlin. I will be without computer for the next few weeks, so probably won't update too often. I'll try to get a notebook though so I can remember to write things down and transcribe them later.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

wedding festivities

The wedding and reception that brought us to Berlin was held on Friday. Unfortunately it was a rainy cold day, but the festivities were excellent. Andy & Anja were married at the Rathaus in Schoneberg. The officiant was excellent. She was so personable and really made the ceremony feel like it was the only one she was doing all day. Even though another couple were outside waiting! It was really fantastic, even though it was in German and we got only half of it.
We then walked across the street for cake, but were getting pelted by the rain, so headed to the reception venue early. We all jumped into taxi's and headed to the lake. We had a wonderful terrace with heaters, couches and blankets and a gorgeous wood paneled room with bookcases filled with wine.
Festivities started at 3 pm and we were going until 5 a.m. Others stayed until 6:30!
Needless to say.. we slept all day yesterday!

The final meetup was last night at a Greek beer garden in Kleistpark. It was also really great with a live band.

Now that the wedding is behind us, we can try to get back to business being tourists!
Photos will come soon. Hopefully tomorrow I'll get some up.


Friday, August 15, 2008

love love love berlin!

I seriously do love this city. Maybe it's just because it's different than Mumbai, but I think I just really like it here. It already feels like home! The people are fantastic, the food options are wonderful, it's so easy to walk around or take the train and there are so many 'free' things to do!

The day before yesterday we had errands to run. Weird I know, specially when we are on holiday! But we had things we needed to mail and had to pick up some wrapping paper. It took us almost all day to find the post office. The maps are literal here - when it shows a little envelope on the map, it means a post box! But our little adventure took us walking through our neighborhood and through nice wall murals and then to checkpoint charlie. After that we went to the Reichstag (govt building) and waited in line for an hour to go in (free). It was nice. not sure if it was worth the hour wait, but it was sunny and it was fine to sit out in the sun for a while. Then we headed off this bombed out church that i remembered from my first trip here 8 years ago. It was a nice day of pottering around, getting the lay of the land.

At night we went out with our friends for their bachlor/bachelorette parties. I was a light weight and came home by 2 while paul stayed out until well after 3. Note - there are no real timings for bars here. They are open until the last patron leaves! Not good for some people i'd say! And apparently the beers are super cheap. A night of drinking for Paul and it was only 11 euro. Haha. My total bill was 3 euro :)

Yesterday we had a super mellow day, sleeping in and then napping for a good part of the day. I think I needed that to really get over this cold I've had. Then we decided to go down to the 'cool' street near our house. It was fantastic. It was a long boulevard lined with cafe's, arty shops and second hand shops. We had sushi for dirt cheap - 5 euro each for about 10 rolls each!! loved it. then sat at a park and watched the kids play in the water fountains since it was nice and hot out.

Then a friend of ours who used to live in Mumbai called and we met up with him. We met in the same district that we are staying in Kruezberg, but it was so different over on his side. First we met in a super Turkish area and then walked for about an hour along a beautiful canal to the other end of Kruezberg where he works. Had some drinks and snacks at a canal side cafe, had a tour of his new post production facility and then headed back to our part of town to meet up with the wedding party - 2 hours late! Saw a beatles inspired band at one cafe and then headed back to our favorite neighborhood bar Pinguin.

I was a little worried about getting home in the taxi thinking they wouldn't speak English. But our driver was Turkish and recognized my accent right away as being American. We yammered all the way home and really got some good insights in to how people think (at least perhaps the Turkish pop) about life here, America, politics, etc.

Today it's raining and it's the wedding day. But perhaps it will be fine since we'll be inside for most of the day. Most festivities, people to meet and reasons to love this super laid back city. I'm seriously ready to move here tomorrow!! We've been devising all sort of plans of how we could make this happen. Need to start working on my German skills asap :)


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Journey to Germany

Heading out from India is always a little tiring. You get a little sad in the taxi on the way to the airport about leaving 'home' as folo put it. But then you get to the chaos that is known as Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport and you are ready to get out! They have redone the airport a bit and it is starting to look nicer, but the people are still the same! Pushing, shoving, no sense of a line - drove me mad. Didn't help that I had fever and just did not feel well.

Made it on the flight - first with our 'elite' status which pleased folo to no end! This is his first trip with elite status, so he was excited. But i do have to say that these airlines are definately cutting back on food and drinks! We were given a drink with our food only and the options were so limited. No apple juice or diet sodas. 'dinner' was a small bread with a slice of cheese and tomato! And then no drink cart until breakfast... luckily i had my own bottle of water. Maybe it is just a short flight??? Eight hours shouldn't constitute short, but compared to the 16 hr flights i've been doing recently I felt I was getting jipped on the food!

Arrival in Paris was easy as pie... went through passport control, but they barely glanced at my passport. Then i was outside! I was shocked.. I know they don't always stamp US passports, but still...don't they need to scan my passport or something and know how long i'll be in the EU? Guess not. Then we got to Berlin and there wasn't even a passport control. I felt like I had just snuck in the country. I'm certainly not used to being ignored with my passport in hand! But what is funny is that the airport we flew into was Tegel which is on the West side of Berlin. They didn't care one bit about passport or customs. But in Jan when we flew from Ireland we flew into an airport on the former East side and they are still very strict there. The Berliners say perhaps they are former SS. I'm flying out of the east side next week, so i'll compare and get back to you!

As easy as it is to buy train tickets at the airport, it took Folo and I forever. Machines don't seem to like us these days. the coke machine wasn't working - just taking my money and then spitting it back out. then the train ticket machine wouldn't take our credit card, nor paper bills.. only coins. How are we supposed to have 52 euro in coins?! Then we saw the booth and got our week tickets in seconds. grr. what a waste of time.

Being in Berlin is super easy. I remember the first time I came how I was lost on the trains, going back and forth unable to figure out if i was going the correct direction. Now I just potter right on, and seem to just feel the right way. I guess that's what 8 years of international travel does for you.

Got to our apartment and couldn't get the keys to work! We struggled for seriously 45 minutes trying to unlock the door. By this point, we are sweaty, tired, and hungry. The neighborhood looked a bit dodgy and that didn't help our moods. The ladies who we picked the keys up from were rude as anything and i had to have a little yell with them. Finally they called the apt owner and he told me how to get in. Sheesh. Once inside, the apartment is fine. A little bare, with few necessities, but it's ok.. Helps us know what is important to have in a place if we do decide to get an apartment here. Across the street is a great organic grocery shop. Folo loaded up on 4 euro organic wine, cheeses, breads, german beers and other little snacks for our fridge.

Spent the rest of the day getting a phone chip and visiting with Andy & Anja. The weather is great by my standards. It was around 70 degrees, but got a little warm even with a hoodie on. Sprinkling a little, but it's nothing compared to the rain in Mumbai! It's so nice to be back in Berlin!! I really do want to live here for a while. Need to start working on my german though!

Now it's time to head out and enjoy the sun for a bit before the rains come again. More errands on the agenda today and then a 'hen' party tonight (bachlorette party).


Sunday, August 10, 2008

off to another adventure..

I am off to Berlin tomorrow. Whoot whoot! All smiles except that I have been down with some cold or flu for the past 3 days and have gotten nothing done in preparation for my trip. The other week my entire household was sick and I escaped it, but now I have it. I wish I would have gotten it then and not now. So i've just been resting as much as possible with olympic watching in between.

Haven't packed, haven't finished running errands and didn't even get to go to Goa for Stacie's bday. I didn't go so I could spend the weekend doing all my errands and packing..nope.

Tomorrow, no matter how crappy I feel I have a full day. I have a mani/pedi appt in the am to get me out of the house, then must run last minute errands and pay bills. Then come home and hope that my clothes are dry and pack before stacie gets back and needs her room! At the moment, her bed is covered in random bits that I plan to pack.

And tomorrow night we will be off. this week should be pretty mellow in Berlin at least until Thur when the rest of the gang arrives for Andy & Anja's wedding. hopefully we can look at some possible flats to purchase, do some shopping and just potter around Berlin. I've been several times before, but this is only folo's second time. And I need to search out things to show my Grandmother when she arrives the following week.

I'll be sure to update and post photos as I can. See you in Sept


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Expats in India

The monsoon has been very weak this year, but I guess we shouldn't complain too much because it has still been cooler for the most part and we don't have to deal with soggy wet fet all the time! But monsoon is also the time of year when people are coming and going. A few people we used to hang out with have left - for the best I think. Neither of them were particularly happy here and tended to just make others miserable in their wake. And we ran into some other people we know yesterday who are also planning on leaving soon. The male part of both of these has managed to stay in India much longer, but once their female counterpart's arrived, it all went downhill...

It makes me think about what qualities a person must have to be able to stick out India for so long. How have I been here for 4+ years and others who live much grander lifestyles than me can't make it past 1 year? Does it all come down to adaptability? Or is it just that there are things here to keep me occupied? Does it make a difference that I was already heavily involved in non profit work in my previous life and can easily do it here as well? Adventurous spirit - does that play any role? Wanting to experience new things, seeking out new possibilities? Anyone know what qualities it takes to stick out the expat lifestyle?!

There was just an article online discussing expats. Apparently Irish and Kiwi's are more often expats and India is the country with the lowest 'longevity' for expats. It is definately not an easy country to live in, but if you can stick it out, it tops the list of 'earn & save' while also living a luxurious lifestyle. But I think many people are lured her with those thoughts, but then can't handle it and end up leaving well before their contracts expire.

Meanwhile, I have friends who were transferred from India for other 'exotic' locales and still miss India intensely and would probably move back in an instant. They were 'typical' expats, but somehow really fell into life here. And then there are those who seriously LOVE India and fully immerse themselves and don't get annoyed by the little things that drive us mad... Food for thought I guess.

In other news, I am running around like mad trying to finish all my little projects so I can fully relax on my trip to Berlin, Russia & Latvia. I'm getting excited - only one week to go!