Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Russia Travelogue day 9: Dress codes

June 24:
We Reached Kazan without any issues on what was promising to be another hot day. All this time that we have traveled in trains in Russia, I have always chosen the bottom bunk. Not sure what is the etiquette for a couple in trains. Should it be Shaks who should be at the bottom since it’s easier or should she be at the top even though it’s more work in climbing up. Then again, I could be insulting Shaks by treating her as dainty, not capable of being on top or I could be considered apathetic by leaving her at the bottom, not caring about her desires. Since, I am a modern man; I care about Shaks desires so I just ordered her to be on top berth. When I say ordered, I use it in a very loose sense. Some might even say that what I said was more like requested. But that is just nitpicking. That is how you solve problems, be assertive, take charge of situation and pray that your significant other is in the mood to agree with you. Luckily, Shaks agreed instead of crushing my arguments. If you remember, we were travelling with two nice Russian middle aged men. Well, one of them happily took off his t-shirt and just slept in his shorts. Unusual sight for all two of us.  
Getting back to Kazan, we were out in sweltering heat waiting for the cab for 10 minutes before it showed up. I was glad to be out of the sun and into an AC car to our stay. This place was also away from city center but not as desolate as Nino, at least on the google map. It didn’t look like that when we got out of the Cab. We were left in front of a slightly old, one floor building. It even had a Russia flag around it. We tried to figure out how to enter it and almost walked into a government building with our stuff. I was smart enough to actually take a look at the address that we were supposed to be. It was few blocks away so we walked some more in the same sun beating down on us.
This is a good time to Segway to the topic of cabs in Russia. Now you might be much smarter than I am and not fall into the pitfalls that I did, but I will recount here my experience so that they are avoided anyway. Good news, there is Uber in Russia. Bad news, somehow it never worked for me and probably once worked for Shaks. So we were out in St. Petersburg airport , trying to figure out Uber and failing. I tried to go to the Taxi kiosk to pre-order a taxi where someone told me the taxi to take. After I loaded the taxi with my stuff, I started walking back to the kiosk to pay for it. That’s when I got to know that the taxi was just a random taxi, but since we had already kept our stuff and Shaks was inside, we just decided to take it instead of figuring out the whole pay. The cab driver showed us the meter and charged us 4500 Rubles. I think we paid a lot more than we should have. I had similar experience in Moscow where we paid 4000 rubles to go from station to our apartment and that definitely was 3 times what we had to pay. I did some google search by this point and realized that there were Yandere and Y. taxi apps which are equivalent of Uber in Russia, so now we are smarter about it. We book online. But this is not a criticism of Russian cab drivers. I am from India and have seen worst for tourists. Be it Varanasi or Chennai or Delhi. I expect it, if anything, it’s my failure to not negotiate and forget my roots. Also, every cab driver we met was friendly and helpful. They are just doing what is needed to earn as much as they can, I respect that.   We met Dinah whose apartment we had rented He was nice enough to have our apartment ready early in the morning. The apartment itself reminded me of those government created apartments in Delhi which are reserved for army and government athletes. He also had a washer and dryer unit. I definitely needed to wash my socks and under wears after almost 9 days of travelling. But first order of the day was to sleep a little so that we go to the city well rested.
We rested for couple hours then we got ready and left for the city. The cab dropped us in Bauman Street which is the main area to walk around in Kazan. We hardly went few steps there before hunger took us over and like a zombie made us beeline to a restaurant. This was our first Uzbek cuisine experience. As is common in Russia, the restaurant décor was top notch. They even had Biryani, we were excited. But I guess so was every other patron of the restaurant, since the biryani was sold out. Still, the food was good, which we devoured in few minutes.  Then we did all the touristy things in Kazan. Visited the beautiful church where Shaks was required to cover her shoulders since she was wearing a dress. If not, she would also have needed to cover her knees. After the church we explored rest of the Kazan kremlin, ending in Kul Sharif, a mosque. It was beautiful mosque, Shaks of course needed to cover her shoulders and head. I did like the designer scarf  that Shaks picked up for herself. She looked like she was ready to walk the catwalk. I, of course, thought all of this only later. In the holy place, my thoughts were reserved for piousness.  
I have mentioned how we had picked a team for our previous matches and bought some merchandize to wear to the match. We had not done that for the upcoming Poland vs Colombia match, so we had to buy something for that occasion.  We both wanted to support Colombia.I have two reasons for that, one I always wanted to visit the country so I have soft spot for the team. Second, Colombia has amazing fans. World cup after world cup, its astonishing, the large number they turn up in to support their team. Even here, the streets were full of bright yellow colors. I think 90% of support that I saw was Colombian fans. The best outfit I saw was a guy dressed as bright yellow tiger. Anyway, so to buy something for the match , we took time out in the evening and made it to the closest Adidas store. Turned out it was a factory outlet. So while they had merchandize, it was not related to World cup at all. Same for Nike store.  Shaks was especially bummed because now we might not have any t-shirt for tomorrow. Goolge came to our help again as we saw that there is a large mall with shiny stores on the outskirts of Kazan. Guess our tomorrow’s itinerary also includes going to a mall. We walked more and then ended up in a pub to watch Germany vs Sweden. What a match it was too. Germany had been sleep walking through out and woke up in extra time to win it all with one of the best goals of this world cup and believe me, this world cup has seen some amazing strikes till now. As an aside, I met a German fan while having a bee and congratulated him for Mexico’s win against Germany. In my defense, he was wearing a green jersey. Apparently Germany has a green jersey this world cup as well. I think I should just copy paste all the excuses I wrote when I mistook Portuguese fan for Moroccan fan.
We got back to home quite late and realized that we couldn’t recognize which building was ours. After a couple tries to enter random buildings, finally found the apartment building that our key fit in and got in. This was when I realized that we couldn’t recognize the floor we were supposed to be on. After a couple tries and couple small prayers that no one would call cops on us trying to unlawfully enter their apartment, we found the right apartment.  Thus our first day in Kazan has ended.
Tomorrow our last day in Russia and our last world cup 2018 match. Good night

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Russia Travelogue day 8: Green house and Gucci

June 23, 4 am

today, after a long while, I can say I had good sleep. Ironic considering the fact that I was harping about horrors of the hotel yesterday. We checked out of the hotel at 11 or so and found ourselves at the station in a long line to store our luggage at the price of 200 rubles per bag. I have been throwing money at everything on this trip but I decided at this time that spending on a small bag the same amount as we would on a big backpack was completely unacceptable. So today, both Shaks and I got to carry a bag each. She was not amused by my penny pinching.
I have not mentioned yet that Shaks was wearing an outfit today which is gym leggings, sports bra, and a half translucent white jacket. I dislike that jacket on principle. She can only wear it on a summer day, it’s too thin for any day chilly and though she claims it's breathable, I suspect it's a miniature green house. Adding to that today was a hot day. I was still thinking of yesterday's match and feeling a bit down for it. But there was a town to explore and food to eat. Life doesn’t stop for wins and losses. We tried Uzbeki food in the afternoon. It was good. Plus, the restaurant had its own liquor. I tried their home made mead, which tasted strongly of fermented honey. Then Shaks and I shared their house brew of flavored vodka. All the flavors were nice, like raspberry, honey etc. but I don't know about their horseradish vodka. My suggestion is to skip that double burn of the throat.
After the meal we did more sightseeing around Nino. We went past the square where the fan fest was held. There was a Brazil match being displayed in the big screens there and Neymar had just scored. Curiously, I found a few Brazilian supporters going wild there. How does that happen I wonder? The brazil team is playing in some other city and yet here we have the supporters in Nino watching in in a public square. This is not St. Petersburg or Moscow that they just camped in the city since they liked it so much. I don’t mean to say that Nino is not nice. It’s a beautiful city, but you can explore it end to end over a weekend. Talking of the beauty of the city, we went past the square and came across a panoramic view of River Volga from atop a hill. It was a pretty view as most views of vast bodies of water tend to be. The one thing taking away from the view was sun beating down on us right from above our head. We were constantly thirsty walking near the river with hardly any shade to give us some relief. I was feeling hot in a simple t-shirt so I imagine Shaks must have been boiling sporting her greenhouse jacket. We have walked so much in the sun that I have tan lines on bridge of my nose, right at the portion where my sunglasses sit. Tan lines are sexy, and technically I have tan lines now so it has just added to my appeal. 5 % boost as soon as I take off my sunglasses. I will test this theory on Shaks when I get a chance. It should be easy, I will say something smooth and remove my sunglasses, if she jumps my bones right then, it’s proof enough. I will report back on it from Kazan.

In Nino, the view of the city and the river was worth all the baking we endured. All of our exploring soon brought us back to the Gucci shop, the same where we spend quite a while yesterday. By now, Shaks excitement had dimmed as I did some research in the morning. So, this time armed with the articles on how to spot fake Gucci we walked back into the shop. After going through the bags again, and with me raising doubts, Shaks had enough suspicion to not buy the deal of the century. She was able to spot slight imperfections that to me looked like regular stitching. She was pretty certain that it was a close copy, and the shop also looked legitimate, being one of the big shops in a nice street, but it was definitely a forgery. To get over this revelation and to escape the sun, I wanted a beer so we went to a pub, where I was also able to catch last 30 minutes of the game between Nigeria and Iceland. Let me tell you, the Argentinians celebrated Nigerian goals with more passion than I saw in the whole match yesterday. Nigeria won the match 2-1. Now, depending on the Croatia Iceland match, Argentina have a chance to squeak through. They have to beat Nigeria though and it's not a certainty.
After the match, we just had enough time to get back to station and grab some food for the train. Shaks preferred to use a mall rest room to the rest rooms in train station, so we went across from the station to the Gum mall. This was not anything like the famed mall in Moscow. It was Palika bazaar of Delhi. Knock off shoes like 'Niek' were being sold for 700 rubles. We saw MALENCIAGA and BALFNCIAGA shoes as well. We both found that pretty funny. I had the good sense to avoid any purchases, although I was tempted.

As of now, we are in train ready to leave for Kazan. No confusion this time. Our compartment is shared with two Russians in their 50s who are also going for the same game, to watch Poland vs Columbia.
One last anecdote that happened just now before I leave you, Shaks bought Twix in the train from the vendor. I half paid attention to the purchase as I am writing, and absently grabbed it to have a bite. Shaks snarled at me like a beast seeing its food being stolen or like Gollum seeing his ring being taken, before she recognized that I'm a friendly human and also the love of her life. She politely asked me to only take a little bite of it after that but I had seen the true face of the wild animal that lurks under the civilized facade of my gorgeous fiancé so I wisely left all of the Twix to her. 
Time to crash and I hope I sleep better this time in the train than last time. 

Edit: Forgot to add another interesting note. We were walking around kremlin and took a turn which took us across residential buildings. Most of Russia has similar residential buildings in cities, the non-descript, multi story buildings with bunch of apartments. Small windows, few of the apartments with balconies. So the interesting thing here was that we came across a group of old women who were sitting in the shade in afternoon heat. One was standing and talking to the rest of them. It seemed perfect picture to take for Nino. They looked wonderful in their natural garb so different from all the fans, all the teens and young people out there. We hardly got to see this side of Russia in all the festivities. We asked if Shaks could take a picture with them? Shaks was so happy already that she ran to stand next to them while I got ready to take a quick snap. As I looked through the phone screen, I realized that women actually had not acquiesced to our request. The one standing had started walking away quickly and the ones who were sitting lowered their faces! We apologized for our haste and left the scene as well. It is refreshing to see a generation who still thinks that privacy is something dear. Maybe, people who have lived through direct suppression of communist era better understand what we living in democracy have forgotten. That power corrupts and the power wielders shouldn't be trusted even if they have best of intentions. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Russia Travelogue day 7: The Messi'ahhhhhh'

June 22,
We reached Nizhny at 5 in the morning. As has been the custom in my travels, I hardly slept. 5 am in the morning also meant that it was bright sunshine outside the station. We had to go through a lot of trouble to buy our hotel stay in Nizhny Novgorod or ‘Nino’ as Shaks insists everyone knows it by (Although I think she just read it once and has clung to it as fact). The only hotel we found was 5 miles away from city center. This, when we booked the place two months in advance. So, we got out and went to take the metro. It was weird to reach the metro gate and see it locked. Everyone had to wait for the gates to open which was a change from major cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow but then how many cities are as big as those two. The gates were opened by a guard at 6 am.
Google had told us that we had a ride from the train station and it was going to be a 4 minutes’ walk from there to the hotel. Surprise! we went inside the metro which turned out to be confusing again. The list of stations didn't match Google maps and I wasn't going to another wrong track right after the mishap last night. I am not that incompetent.  Therefore, I made sure to ask a Russian officer showing him the address. After confirmation that this metro does go to the address we were going to, we boarded the metro train. What do you know, we had indeed taken the wrong option. Google wanted us to not take a metro but a tram.  Good news though this was going to take us close enough to walk to the hotel as I saw the station in the map. The Russian officer had been right in his own way. Second good news that now I knew the difference between map symbols for metro and tram. See, I am not that incompetent.
The station wasn't anywhere near close enough when I got down and looked at the trusty Google maps for the shortest way to walk. Google was telling me that It was a 40-minute walk which didn't pass the eye test at all.  The hotel was right there! So, I decided to ditch Google this time and just jay walk across a big road. That risk brought the time down to a brisk 15-minute walk and let me tell you that with my back pack and Shaks’ bruising duffel bag it was no walk in the park. I mean that metaphorically, as literally, it was a walk in the park. No really, we had to cross a trail through an actual park to get there. On the way, we saw abandoned building with windows smashed.  I say its park and that is what it was called but it would be fairer to call it woods. The trail was not maintained at all. It seemed like this used to be an industrial town but now it was a set up for a horror story arc of our travels with abandoned buildings, empty warehouses, large factory silhouettes standing silently in distance… you get the picture.
Continuing with the horror story motif, we reached the hotel only after walking back and forth a couple times because it was a small in-road easy to miss from the main street. Strike 1: horror hotel in outskirts, hard to get to. Then when we finally located the road, before we could enter, a Russian woman smoking cigarette on the side told us something in her language and waved her hand to stop us from going forward. We smiled at her, told her we have reservation and moved ahead. Strike 2: a person warning us to turn back but we ignore/don't understand her. As soon as I opened the door, a strong smell of antiseptic and chlorine hit me. If you have been to hospitals in India in early 90s, then you know what I am talking about. The stairs to our 3rd floor room were wide like the ones you see in hospitals as well. So, strike 3: I suspect my hotel used to be a hospital. This horror movie writes itself.
With my senses tingling, like any sensible person who has seen horror movies, I ignored all these signs and crashed onto the bed. I really needed to sleep. I had a deep sleep as well. I woke up once and that was when I heard our door slam and shaks yell “who is it?”. Strike 4: No one answered. Well, probably one of the maids had opened the door. We went back to sleep. Once we were up and had taken a good shower, it was time to get to our cab which was already waiting. So, I grabbed our passports while shaks opened the door, or tried to.  It was locked, and the key which had been left in the key hole when the hostess showed us the room wasn't there. Someone had opened our room, taken out the key and locked it from outside! Strike 5: locked in the suspicious room, I tried to look around but no key. Shaks then called the reception and explained to someone who didn’t understand much English that we were locked in our room. At the same time, I sent a text to our cab driver, who was still waiting that we will take some time. The cab driver texted us back to after 5 minutes to ask what is happening? Finally, someone came and opened our door. Now we couldn’t just leave as soon as we got out. We had to go to the reception and explain again that we couldn’t find the key. The maids were asked and they said they didn’t take any key. Meanwhile, slightly disconcertingly the cab driver texted me “are you alright?” was this strike 6? I didn’t know. Promising the reception that we will look for the key again when we get back and getting a promise from them in return that they will let us in to our room in the night, we finally escaped to our cab.
Our cab driver turned out to have visited Boston. He had worked for a few months in Boston laying electric cables. That is hard, honest work. Chit chatting with him, we reached Nino and suddenly were in midst of an actual, honest to god, nice city. Nino has one major street which spans few blocks that is the city center. No cars in those blocks, it’s a nice area to walk in. surrounding that block are the kremlin on one side, few other parks on the other side and the end is a square where there was a fan fest being held for all the fans. Just like other cities. The street was full of Argentinian and Croatian fans. More Argentinians than Croatians but they were out in good numbers too. Lots of Argentina fans sporting wigs/ face paints and flags. There were so many Argentinian flags that they had draped statues with it and left it there. We had stepped out of our hotel, ready to go to the match after walking through Nino. Shaks was sporting her Argentina top, and I had the Argentina jacket to show my support.
Oh yes, before I get into the match, let me tell you about our Gucci conundrum. After we had food in an English pub for a change, we kept walking around Nino and got to a street that Shaks had noted we should explore too. It was a wide street with bunch of shops that were selling branded stuff. We walked into one of them, they had Hugo boss, Gucci t-shirts then they had accessories as well. Shaks tried a few things but wasn’t really taken by them. But then her eyes caught the Gucci bags on the display. She was even more excited when she saw the price. It was one third the price of the same bag in USA! She would have bought the bags right then as well but we had to go to watch the match. And as is my wont, I always discourage Shaks from buying stuff because I think I should act as a buffer to her shopping decisions. So, we decided to walk back to the shop the next day before we leave Nino and get that great deal.
Alright let’s talk football. You had think that this was a trip where we stumbled onto matches by accident, so less have I mentioned football in these pages. It changes now. I was excited to see Messi. So excited in fact that I sent a pic of the stadium to my mates with caption “Messi! Messi!” I don’t usually do these things so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to see Messi. I had gone to see Barcelona in USA but Messi had taken a break. I was only able to see my second favorite Barca player Iniesta and what a player he is. I remember first watching Iniesta and my jaw dropped when I saw this slightly bald, probably a clerk who had stumbled onto the pitch, take an amazing first touch and turn with the ball. Then Iniesta proceeded to glide forward with the football, while mesmerized defenders started somehow moving even slower than him. I couldn’t believe that this guy was on Barcelona bench and had come out in the last 10 minutes. That was 2006. By 2008 Iniesta was one of the best mid fielders in the world. But I digress, we are here to talk Messi. I don’t know how to talk about him. Much better writers than I have heaped adulation on the diminutive man. All I can say is that I have felt lucky to see Messi play and make abnormal normal with football at his feet. He has changed football and I am sure the likes of Eden Hazard, Mbappe, Kevin De Bruyne have a new appreciation and awareness of what is possible with a football. So yes, I was looking forward to Messi, hoping we get to see a moment of magic.
Now that we have talked football, let’s talk the match itself. Shaks and I stuffed into a bus and were driven to the Nizhny Novgorod stadium. All the way, I was impressed by the Croatian crowd’s ability to match the larger Argentinian crowd. I felt that they had much shorter and to the point chants. Just one line, or call and response. Argentinians, on the other hand and long, rousing chants. One that I don’t understand which Croatians were singing was something something “Messi puro champion” Argentinians had no response to that. Finally, we walked out and entered the stadium. There was a huge roar when Messi was announced and similar but smaller roar for Luka Modric. I like Luka as well, even when he played for Spurs. This was a feisty match. The section we were in had me slightly concerned. We were on level 2. Level 1 was all Croatian fans with top few rows of Argentinians. Then level 2 had Argentinian fans in front and Croatians fans again at the back. So we were sandwiched between Croatian fans. Then right next to the Argentinian fans below me were 4 Croatian fans in their 50s. As the match went on , they played more critical role in our section. The match was bad if you think from Argentina perspective. They were sleepwalking and Messi had no space. He always had three players around him as soon as he received the ball. No one in the Argentina team was making runs to exploit the space this triple team on Messi was providing. Even the best player in the world can’t do much at this stage. The Croatians rose into volume as the match went on. After all, they were the underdogs, playing against last world cups finalists. The 4 guys I talked about were standing right at the railing of level 2. They were doing call and response with the contingent below and then looking back behind us and continuing the chant. I could feel the Argentinians sitting next to them getting frustrated both with the match and there constant yelling right in front of the. I have to admit it was slightly provocative. First half ended like that. Then disaster struck in the second half, a terrible mistake by the goal keeper gifted Croatia the first goal. It seemed to take whatever fight Argentina had left out of them. Messi had to drop even further to try something. Tempers were getting high on the ground and in our section as well. The 4 Croatian fans were still at it, not in their seats, but right at the railing, looking both at the Argentinian fans and looking back at the rest of the Croatian fans. In Moscow, the security was really strict, once the match started they didn’t allow anyone to leave their seats and stand near the railing. Now it made sense why. Here, there was a teen girl who was wearing security vest. She was never going to come and ask these guys to sit down. Then on the pitch in 73rd or so minute Messi had a tiff with an opposition player. That was the spark that lit the building tension. The 4 provocateurs leaned into the Argentinians faces and started shouting ‘Messi Puta’ , ‘Messi Puta’. One Argentinian had enough and he threw a punch at one of them. It didn’t really connect. I thought this was a start of big brawl and we were right in between the two sets of fans. Thankfully, the punch only was seen by small group of people and didn’t spawn a bigger fight. Some more security came to our section and stood there to mediate. Curiously, they also didn’t ask these 4 guys to go back to their seats. So, they kept provoking and they were really good at using words to cut the Argentinians. I didn’t have any stake in this but even I was annoyed by them. Then at 80th minute Luka managed a great goal. From 20 or so yards away he curled a beautiful shot into the net. Goal keeper could only flail at it. The fans above me erupted and threw a bunch of beers in their cups down so I got a fair few drops on me too. I am surprised that after this Croatia scored only one more goal as Argentina had already quit. This match in a weird way was a real downer for me. I had been annoyed by those 4 guys, with beer being thrown on me and by the terrible display of Argentina. It has been a long time since I felt so heart broken by a display. After the match was over, I was afraid that there will be a fight breaking out because even as the match was winding down with Croatia the clear winner and Argentinian fans with their heads down in their seats, the terrible 4 were still at it. In fact, they would even go and sit right next to the Argentinian who had thrown a punch before. He refused to take his eyes off his phone thankfully. In view of this, as soon as the match got over, I wanted to get shaks out of that section. But guess what, shaks went down next to the warring sets of fans to take more pictures. One of the 4 Croatian dudes happily decided she wanted a picture with him and posed with her. She came back and told me, he told her, I am your fathers age. I understand Shaks, that we not coming back to this stadium and watching a world cup match, but I really didn’t want to take pics, I felt it was disrespectful to the team we were supporting, to brush off the loss so easily. It is very silly, as there were plenty Argentinians who I’m sure would have taken pictures but that’s just me. By the way, just after Shaks was done with pics, there was another scuffle when an Argentinian went right between those guys and put his hands on the railing slightly pushing them away. But by this time, Security was again back and they stepped in again. He protested that he was just untying the flag which he was. So, things remained on the simmer on our side. Later, I saw a video on the net of an alone Croatian fan getting beaten by Argentinians which just shows terrible people are everywhere and not just on one side.
We took the bus and got back to the city center of Nino. I had a large beer to drown my sorrow and Shaks drowned hers in a Tiramisu cake. I am again surprised by how badly I have taken this loss. It shouldn’t hurt this much. To top it off, we struggled to get home because I didn’t have any cash. My battery was running low as well so we made it to a bank to take out some cash. Their atm was closed. Then we stepped into a couple markets to see if they had atm inside. They were not 7/11, they didn’t. Finally, Shaks remembered that we had walked across an open atm before. So tired and sad, we walked around until we saw that atm. By the time we took the cash out, my phone was dead. Shaks’ phone was about to die as well and her internet doesn’t work that great anyway so we had to walk back to the spot where we had seen taxis. So finally, we got to the spot and reserved the taxi back to our hotel at 2 am. I was so sad that I didn’t even realize that it was strike 7: our phones were dead in the horror hotel arc.
We got back, and Shaks tried to explain to the Russian lady with her expressive face and equally expressive mime skills that our door was locked, someone needed to come up with us to open our room. The lady was confused at her until she saw me and then she remembered our morning issue. So Natasha came up and opened the door for us. I say Natasha because she remembered me otherwise it would have been a nameless receptionist. She is cute too now that I think about it. Shaks just rolled her eyes at me when I shared Natasha’s good qualities with her. There was no further horror waiting apart from the terrible smell that greeted us as we stepped into our room. It was coming from some pipe in bathroom. Shaks went to do her routine of freshening up and I dropped onto the bed. On a whim, I picked up the trousers I was sleeping in in the morning. The pocket had the keys I thought someone had taken from us. I was so sleepy in the morning that I had no recollection of going to the door, taking out the key and locking it. So, the only horror after all these strikes was the display of Argentina and we had already been through it.
I am taking comfort from the warmth of Shaks next to me in the bed. She slept as soon as she hit the bed. We have to go tomorrow to the train station to store our luggage before we move on with the rest of the day.
See you tomorrow.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Russia Travelogue day 6: The athlete, the actor

June 21:
Today was the match day. Shaks wore the Portugal jersey that she got and I wore the black t-shirt with Portugal written on it. Wearing a jersey made all the difference when we were walking the same streets as yesterday in the morning. People see and recognize us as an invested party in the world cup. There are glances of recognition by other fans sporting jersey as fellow sufferers at the mercy of how 11 guys play for us. Shaks got more attention as she was wearing the Portugal Jersey unlike me and also because the jersey looked good on her. The attention also brings with it a kind of shame to me personally. What would I not give to be here supporting India not because I’m patriotic but because it would give me a legitimacy which is entirely absent with me supporting Portugal here. Our thought process was that since we are going to these matches, we should pick a team in each match and support it as well. I was sporting Portugal jersey but between you and me, I wouldn’t mind if Morocco wins. I am kind of in between two minds here. I am watching this match to see Ronaldo in action so I felt I should show support for Portugal but I am at the same time not a big fan of Ronaldo. Speaking of supporting the countries, I really need to learn Spanish, at least that would let me connect with all the south American fans. I feel every time I see another supporter and expect them to be surprised once they ask me a question and I reply in English. Mind you, this is all in my head. The other supporters have shown nothing but love once they have got to know us and accepted us whole heartedly into the fold.
We took a metro to the match. On the match day, the public transport is free everywhere in Russia. Once we reached the stadium, we finally got to see other Portugal supporters. Still, they were dwarfed by the Moroccan support. There were bunch of stalls by Fifa sponsors once we got inside the stadium. Shaks was happy to browse around and really wanted to get the free face paint on her cheeks with Portugal and Morocco flags. But we had been slightly late so we skipped that line and made a beeline to the stadium entry doors. A word about the food that we did stand in line to get, all we could get was hot dogs and burgers with coke and bud light for beverages. Pretty limited fare but reasonably priced. As we headed towards the stadium door, we could hear the roar of the crowd inside and that could only mean that Ronaldo had walked on to the field, he is after all a global celebrity. It took me a moment to absorb the atmosphere, of actually being in the stadium. All I could do was smile at Shaks, she had made it happen. We were in the stadium to watch our first match. Our seats were really good. We were right behind the goal post and at suitable height to see whole of the field. The Portugal team had the other side, so it meant that we got to see Ronaldo attack the goal on our side. He did his customary tricks and turns. It was surreal to see him this close live instead of on a small screen. And within first few minutes, Portugal had a corner and he scored. This was his 4th goal in the world cup and it’s turning out to be a great occasion for him. Of course he ran to our side, did a jump in the air and then threw back his hands behind him, if you have seen him on the TV; you know the celebration I am talking about. I have complicated feelings about Ronaldo. He is by any measuring yard, one of the two best players in the world. It’s a privilege to see him and I take that opportunity whole heartedly. At the same time, he is easy to dislike. The drama, the dives, the throwing of hands if his team mates ignore him, sometimes his selfish games, it all means that you can easily hate him. And I did, being an arsenal fan for a long time. It was always a point of pleasure for me that he had never really performed against us of course until that champions league game when he took us apart. Damn Almunia, letting a free kick go through his hands so now I couldn’t even say that he hadn’t scored his overrated free kick against us. What Ronaldo does on the field is half for people around him and half for people watching. The pitch is like a stage and he is the actor we have turned to see in that movie.  Every action is exaggerated for our benefit, here look at the big throw of hands once his run wasn’t picked up , there see the huge shake of head after missing a half chance. He owns the whole field.
Getting back to the match, after that one header Portugal didn’t really do much. They had one more good chance. Morocco, on the other hand, were much better team. They made chance after chance. They played the better game. Their right wing play was amazing. By the end I wanted it to be at least a draw because they deserved more. But it wasn’t to be. The score remained 1-0 and Portugal won. Couple of other interesting things that I saw at the stadium; one, there were surprisingly many Indians here to watch the match. In fact, I saw a person with a print out of Indian flag, wearing a full traditional south Indian dhoti and sandals, getting his pictures taken by his friend. Another couple next to us was also from India and they were huge fans of Ronaldo. The girl especially was going crazy at his every move. Lastly, since we were close enough to the players, it struck me how buffed up all the players are. Somehow on TV, the players look thinner than they actually are. I can’t even begin to imagine how Roberto Carlos would have looked on the field if even we could distinguish his massive thighs on TV.
Thus ended our first world cup match and it was a great experience. Here was an item off our bucket list. We took the train back to Moscow and made another trip to the red square before starting a slow walk back to pick our stuff and go to the train station. The red square looked wonderful in the evening golden light. We were going to miss Moscow too, it was a beautiful city. One faux pas that I made on our walk back was that I saw this Moroccan fan walking alone. He asked us for some direction, then I commiserated with him about how morocco was such a good team and they deserved more. Well half way through that sentence, Shaks elbowed me, and I ignored that. By the time I was ending the sentence I saw his emblem and he was actually wearing the Portuguese jersey! They both seem so alike from the behind! Well, I recovered as well as possible from that point on. Personally I thought, I was smooth in handling that situation so that it didn’t turn awkward. I, also, totally denied Shaks, when she made fun of me for making me look like an Idiot. For the record, I did not make myself look like an idiot, since I am already one. So who is laughing now?
Our long walk took us through Arbatskya street, which was very nice and had musicians and artists every few steps. We spent some time there, looking at the performances and enjoying our last few minutes in Moscow. Then it was time to head to Nizhny Novgorod.
Our train was at 10:50 PM and by the time I checked with the receptionist about the train station we were going to was the right one and called the cab, it was already 9:45. Still we had enough time so I wasn’t worried. We got to the station and I, despite having already confirmed the train station, had a feeling so I showed my ticket to the cab driver as well and asked him if we were at the right station. He confirmed to assuage my feelings. I looked at the train scheduled for departures and there was a train leaving at 1050 but it was to St. Petersburg. That made me apprehensive so I decided to go inside to the door to confirm with the security guard. He looked at my ticket and confirmed that my train was at the track that st. Petersburg train was at. It still struck me odd that the train’s final destination was St. Petersburg and that the train number wasn’t the same. Anyhow, now we had only 35 minutes so I got hold of Shaks who was taking pictures of the train station and headed to our coach which of course was at the far end. Half way, through the two things which had made me apprehensive made me stop and for the third time confirm that we were at the right train. So, I showed a conductor and volunteer my ticket. The volunteer was halfway through confirming that we had the correct train, when once I asked her why the train numbers didn’t match that she said, oh, this is not the right train, you have to go to another train station. Well, that made me speechless and with great fear, I asked how far was that other station, she said, its 15 minutes’ walk from this station so not to worry. We didn’t wait for further instructions, and started walking back as swiftly as we could. By the time we reached back to the gates, I didn’t’ want to go out, go through the security check again and come back only after realizing there was a miscommunication, so I showed my ticket again to another conductor and volunteer. The volunteer who could speak English said yes, this is the train and when I showed her the train number and asked her the same question, after conversing with the conductor in Russian told us that she was wrong, we were indeed at the wrong station . She also said “RUN”. We broke into sprint to this other station. It’s damn hard to run with a heavy shoulder duffel bag swinging around. I think I will buy Shaks a backpack to help me stop my shoulders from bruising as I heave her polo bag around rushing to things. After asking once more, we finally made it to our station which was 10 minutes run away. We made it by 10:45 and could finally take some time to settle down in our seat. As I write sitting on my berth, I see the couple we are sharing the compartment with. They are Argentinians and were stoked that we were going to watch the Argentina match and were supporting them as well. The guy especially was very friendly. Once Shaks told him that see wanted to visit Patagonia, he pulled up pictures of his visit there and made us go through them.  I like them, they are good people. Hopefully, we get to see them tomorrow at some point in the match. I cannot believe that I am about to see Messi after I just saw Ronaldo, the two best players in the world.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Russia Travelogue day 5: the capital

June 20th, 6 am
I only got 3 hours of sleep in the train, instead my brain decided to just go on random journeys of fancy. So, it has been a kind of slog the whole first day in Moscow.  One silver line to being awake most of the morning was that I was able to see the train enter Moscow.  It’s always fascinating to see the city emerge from surrounding landscape to industry and then to a maze of populated building as you enter the station. It kind of reminded me of entering New Delhi for the first time. This resemblance kept dropping in and out as we glimpsed parts of old Moscow that was being slowly layered over by the New Moscow. 
We dropped our luggage at the hotel since check in was only at 2:00 p.m. Then it was a nice walk to red square. We came across a lot of people going to work. It felt strange to not be lost in that crowd going to my work too. Again, women were stunning. They take their appearance seriously. Shaks was very satisfied with all the fashion display.  Moscow, at least near the main area had beautiful wide streets, lined with landmark looking buildings. Spotless as well. Russia has presented itself in a very pretty light to rest of the world. Everyone I talked to, was impressed with the Russian hospitality. If you forget the rest of politics, it's hard to match the Russia you read about to the Russia that we are seeing here.
Walking towards red Square, we took a detour following a couple who seemed to know where they were going to, also google map suggested that we walk in that direction. It was a good decision. We came up to a few cobble stone steps and then saw a path through a building that gave way to an archway. It reminded me of running through gully's of Varanasi, running under houses that have a room as a bridge connecting two houses on either side of the street. The gully’s in Varanasi used to be cobbled as well although most of them have stone path now. My memories of Varanasi were heightened as we stepped out of the arch to a road with hanging lights. The street was filled with sounds of multiple bells ringing in discordant fashion as if I had just stepped into Shiva temple back home and people in every corner were ringing bells to their own rhythm. I came back to the present when I saw all the bells were on the top of one church and being rung by an old pair of hands holding ropes attached to the bells. I have not thought of temples from my childhood in a long time and it all just floated up from deep recesses of my mind in Moscow, a city so very different from home. Moving forward takes you in some way to past as well.    Taking in the sights of that cobbled street lines with souvenir shops and restaurants, we got to the end and suddenly were thrust straight into the Red square. Red square is a wide expanse flanked on all sides by amazing structures. The colorful cathedral standing proud at the other end of it from where we walked into the square. St. Basil cathedral was as beautiful as it looks in the pictures. After taking pics of every single building surrounding the red square, we got into the long line to walk inside the cathedral. The inside was not as stunning as outside but that is a hard bar to rise to. It definitely doesn’t discount the beauty of the structure. It was good that we got in line to enter the cathedral early as later the line increased at a rapid rate. Once we finished the tour, we entered Gum which is a historic building turned into a huge mall, quite close in scale to mall of America or maybe even bigger, certainly more striking. The one interesting thing I'd like to mention about Gum is that Shaks needed to use the restroom which proclaimed to be a historical restroom. She was then charged 200 rubles for the privilege of using it. Verdict: nothing special. If you ask me, skip that history if you don’t need to answer the natures call. Plus, if it was truly historic, it would be a terrible restroom to use. The plumbing would be atrocious, maybe you would have to do your business in a chamber pot.
We had Russian cuisine today. The salads are great. I love eating the Russian salads while I stay away from American ones. Why you ask? Is it because its exotic that I am showing this hypocrisy? No, it’s because they are not just green leaves thrown together. There is cooked potatoes, veggies and meats with mayo added on in those salads. I am not fan of salads but this type of cooked salad I can get behind. 
Later, in the night, we tried to get to fan fest in red Square to watch the Russia match but unfortunately red square is closed at that hour. Still we saw the rest of the match standing near where the Russian tv has set up their commentary booth. Russia won the match handsomely. The crowd went crazy after that. People packed in to the streets, waving Russian flag. People honking in street, chanting Ru-ss-ia. Today everyone was Russian. On a side note I saw Argentina and Morocco fans the most apart from Russian fans here. It's surprising because I would have expected a large contingent of Portuguese fans but I think I saw one family in all of St. Petersburg. Hope there are more sightings tomorrow. 
The party in the streets kept going but by now my feet were stone, same for Shaks. All the walking is starting to catch up with us. Also, the limited sleep doesn’t help. So even though I wished to breath in the atmosphere, soak up the sweat of jam-packed Russians, Argentinians, and Moroccan supporters, hear the bang of drums and chants in tongues I couldn't fathom, it was time to rest and be ready for my first ever live world cup match! 
Ronaldo here we come to see you and all the strut and all the drama.