If there are three things I learned from my mother it was never to venture outside without clean underwear; not to mix colours with whites when doing the laundry, and never to hitchhike. A pair of pink and grey dappled boxers and a harrowing experience in St Petersburg suggests that I should have paid more attention!
I was in Russia as the dust of the fallen Berlin Wall still floated in the air and Glasnost and Perestroika were news headlines and not the names of technopop bands. I had discovered that one way to avoid the necessity of a visa was to travel by Russian ship from Helsinki and stay on board from 1am to 6am each of the three nights in St Petersburg.
We had arrived just after dawn and cruised into the labyrinthine port slowly passing rusting hulks and spits of land glowing with small campfires. The enormous art deco terminal still bore the legend “Leningrad“. I headed down the gangway and had my passport stamped, was met by a friend and headed into the city.
Later that evening after dinner and a few drinks in a hidden courtyard patio reached through a dark and damp passageway, it was time to return to the ship before curfew. With the ‘White Nights’ burning bright and mosquitoes devouring my ankles, I hailed a taxi.
“Be here tomorrow morning at eight and we’ll get the train to Tsarskoe Selo, the Summer Palace.” Lena suggested.
“Can I get a bus from the port?” I asked optimistically.
“Ummm, no.” she replied.
“There are buses but they don’t run very often – and you won’t find a taxi there either. You’ll have to hitch a ride.”
“Hitchhike?” I stammered unenthusiastically, visions of every slasher film I had ever avoided dancing in my head – except this time in Russian with English subtitles.
“Yes…just flag a car heading in the right direction. Someone will give you a lift. But don’t get in a car with more than one person…just to be safe.” she said as I climbed into my taxi.
“Oh…” her voice rang out as I was whisked away, “…and don’t get in a BMW or anything expensive: they’re probably mafiya.”
The next morning I set off towards the road with great trepidation, glancing over my shoulder every few feet in search of a suitable ride. Docks tend to be industrial and generally unappealing in any city. St Petersburg was no exception. The cracked sidewalk was deserted and weed-strewn and the surrounding buildings seemed abandoned, overgrown and darkened by the long shadows of dawn. Apart from a stray dog and squad of jogging naval cadets, I was worryingly alone.
I surveyed the traffic intently. BMWs and SUVs were avoided, less resplendent vehicles carefully scrutinised for multiple occupants. Finally, a battered and exhaust-spewing Lada chugged into sight. There was only the driver and he seemed old…and harmless. I raised my arm and he stopped.
“Petropavlovskaya, puzhalsta?” I implored using half of my entire Russian vocabulary in one sentence.
The driver leaned across and let loose a rabid torrent of Russian, his right arm gesticulating wildly.
“Nyet Russkoya” I struggled unnecessarily, exhausting the rest of my Russian and backing away from the car.
He beckoned me back and opened the door. I climbed in but unfortunately we didn’t drive away. Instead, we sat there by the side of the road while he continued his diatribe. I shrugged intelligently and went to reach for the handle to leave, just as he stepped on the accelerator and we jolted into the rush-hour traffic.
I have often found that the longest moments in life tend to be when you’re with someone and there’s little or nothing to talk about. True friends are those with whom you can be silent in complete comfort. This particular one-sided conversation was the verbal equivalent of a trip to the dentist.
My driver’s tirade continued as we wheeled through the busy roads. His finger tapped the fuel gauge furiously.
After the longest trip of my life, we arrived at Petropavlovskaya station. I reached into my pocket and removed $5 in rubles – a lot of money in newly post-Communist Russia. I proffered it, unsure whether it was an acceptable payment or not.
My driver went silent for the first time, took it, held it in his hand, and then beamed the biggest brightest gold-toothed smile in the world. He gripped my shoulder and rigorously shook my hand. Reaching under his seat he removed an unlabelled bottle of a mysterious cloudy liquid, took a swig and handed it to me with a hearty “moi drug” (my friend). I smiled politely and raised the bottle to my lips, the scent of pure alcohol singeing the hairs in my nostrils and almost causing me to cough. I pretended to drink and, spaseba-ing him profusely, returned the bottle and escaped his car.
Heaving a sigh of relief I watched my new best friend tuck the bottle back under his seat and drive off waving enthusiastically…and then checked to see if at least my underwear was clean.
Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008