Last thoughts on Russia

As we’re sitting at the airport waiting for our flight, I wanted to put together a small list of the most interesting or surprising things we noticed in Russia:

1. Russians love their history.  They embrace it, make memorials to it, talk about it, joke about it, and drink to it all the time.  Not just the happy times, either.

2. There are many “familiar faces” here.  Looking around at the faces of people, I notice that almost everyone looks a lot like somebody I know. I guess what that really means is that we must have more Russian heritage in the USA than we know.  Maybe something conveniently “forgotten” during cold war times, but, then again, I don’t know.

3. Potatoes will fill you for a long time.  Potatoes come with every meal here.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  Sure, they can be prepared in a variety of ways, but, potatoes are potatoes.  While they might not excite me gastronomically, they sure fill me up—for HOURS! I guess that is what they mean when they say Russian food is hearty, and gets the people through many a hard winter. Continue reading Last thoughts on Russia

Out of Time in Moscow

*Check out our complete Moscow photo gallery below*

We spent our last full day here wrapping up the most “touristy” (although most of the tourists here are Russian) sites on our itinerary. We started out with the Lenin mausoleum. The mausoleum has pretty limited hours of 1000-1300 only and closed Monday and Friday. The VERY limited hours might reflect the periods of the year when those hours are nearly the only time there is daylight. Looking at the numbers, it’s pretty clear this place endures a bitter, cold, dark, endless winter each year…. kinda like we endured in Boston last year.

Admission to the mausoleum is free, although you really have to get there early. The line to get in starts building about an hour early and quickly gets really, really long. So long in fact, that in today’s case they stopped letting people in at a certain point, even though it was still well within their limited hours. Luckily, Martha had made sure we got there plenty early though and we were in the first batch to….. ummm…. walk solemnly past Vladimir Lenin’s preserved corpse. Actually, you know, the queuing process for this was not terribly dissimilar to waiting for “Space Mountain” at Disney World. The line was endless and moved slowly, you’re surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns and gardens, you’re waiting in the hot sun, and when you finally get where you’re going it’s over in like a minute. Well, ok, maybe they’re not that similar. The thing is, while I’m normally pretty irreverent, they set this whole experience up so completely that you can’t help but just STFU and sort of pay your respects. After finally finishing up in line, a Russian officer let’s in small batches of people into a gated area in Red Square. Then, you have to check any and all bags, cameras, and phones. Finally, after a complete security check, you start to get ushered behind the mausoleum through marble walkways lined with monuments to prior Soviet leaders. Continue reading Out of Time in Moscow

Fallen Monuments

We’ve been battling some sleep disturbance since our arrival in Moscow.  Not just because of the 8 hour difference from Jacksonville (actually 9 hours if our stay in Mexico counts), but because the sun is always out. Mike and I have found ourselves galavanting around town (sun still out and bright) thinking it is early to mid-evening only to find out it’s already 11 pm! Then later, just as we’re getting into a nice deep sleep, the sun rises yet again (around 4:45 am or so).  Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly happy to be here for the 18 hour days, especially considering the sunrise in the deep of winter here isn’t until 10 am or so, and then sunset is around 5.  If you’re counting, that makes for a  7 hour day—much too short for decent sightseeing opportunities.

Today started out finishing up seeing the “must see” metro stations.  We started out at Mayakovskaya station. It is known for its “stalinist architecture” and it’s mosaic ceilings extolling the “bright Soviet future.” A few snaps (or in Mike’s case, more than just a few), and we were off to the last of our must-see metro stations, Komsomolskaya station. This was definitely our favorite, with the yellow ceilings and baroque-ish style.  If there is only one metro station to see while in Moscow, I’d say this is the pick. Continue reading Fallen Monuments

The Moscow Metro

Walking through the Moscow Metro, you get the sense that you’re moving through hallowed ground. The place is busy, but not notably so, and everyone moves with a very quiet efficiency. Workers are constantly cleaning and polishing the floors. I saw one worker diligently moving a straight line of fine wood chips across the floor to pick up dust before another followed behind polishing the tile. Considering the age of many of the stations (it opened in 1935), the subway really is incredibly clean and well maintained. The architecture is really unique, with some of the oldest stations containing elements of a Soviet take on art deco called postconstructivism. Lots of classical shapes without the classical adornments. A lot of the older stations conform to Stalinist architecture, with all sorts of communist elements such as revolutionary statues and even, say, images of wheat in the ventilation grating. We made a point of stopping for a few minutes at several of the more notable stations, and it’s easy to see why the Moscow Metro makes it on any Moscow “must see” itinerary. Continue reading The Moscow Metro

Arrival in Moscow

After an uneventful flight to JFK, we checked in at Terminal 1 for our Aeroflot flight to Moscow. I don’t think we’ve ever been in Terminal 1 in JFK before, but I’ll say this: the place is a zoo. Flights are departing to every imaginable destination with every imaginable culture being jammed through the same customer-friendly TSA security protocols. The people-watching was entertaining to say the least during our wait there. Check-in at the Aeroflot (Russian airline) desk provided some cultural hints at our next destination. For one thing, it’s interesting how ethnically diverse Russian people are. I mean, it’s easy to imagine a stereotype like Ivan Drago (Rocky IV), and there are definitely some of those around. However, there are a lot of Russians who look far more “asian,” as well as all shades in between. We were some of the very few tourists on the flight, but I don’t think it was our physical appearance that made that obvious. The one thing that all the Russians on the flight seemed to have in common was TONS of baggage. Ridiculous amounts piled up on rolling carts. These guys went shopping, big time, and they were bringing home insane loads of stuff. So there were Martha and I with our little backpacks, and when we were finally able to check in the lady seemed a little incredulous that we hadn’t/weren’t checking any bags. Continue reading Arrival in Moscow

Last Days in Mexico

You know, one can’t help but filter travel experiences through the lens of your own culture and experience. You step into another way of life, observe the differences, and usually start out thinking “WTF is wrong with these people?!!” At least, that’s what I usually think. Seriously though, when observing things that don’t seem to make sense at first, I find it really interesting to find out the reasoning behind those different approaches. Sometimes those reasons are a window into a better way of doing things, and sometimes those reasons are completely stupid. Either way, here goes a random collection of thoughts and observations as we wrap up our time here in Mexico:

“Rampant Capitalism”
One of the first things that struck me, particularly in Mexico City, is the vast array of ways that people manage to scratch out a living here. Just like any major city in the U.S., there are plenty of beggars and panhandlers, but those are mostly unremarkable.** What I did find remarkable was just how ubiquitous and diverse the sale of random goods is. Continue reading Last Days in Mexico

Pico de Orizaba hiking trip

Our hiking trip began catching a bus and bringing all our gear from Mexico City to Puebla. After overnighting in Puebla, we met our mountain guide “Oso” (Translation: The bear), who drove us to our first acclimatization stop in Tlachichuca. An interesting note on Oso, while he’s been professionally guiding on mountains for at least 15 years or so and climbing big peaks for much more, one of his prior careers was as a professional wrestler. Not sure if that’s where the nickname came from. The name works for him though. The man is a machine at altitude on the mountain, carrying far more, far faster than seems humanly possible. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself…

The ride to Tlachichuca from Puebla was interesting, as all travel in Mexico tends to be. An example? Well, at most toll booths in Mexico, despite there being signs that prohibit selling items from pedestrians to cars (like at all red lights in Mexico) there are always people selling all sorts of things as you queue up. On the toll booth out of Puebla though, they were selling puppies! That’s right, puppies being held up for sale to cars as they pass through the toll booths. Weird and a little sad, although damn those puppies were cute.

As we started getting a little closer to Tlachichuca it became basically farmland as far as you could see. A lot of the cornfields unfortunately did not have any type of artificial irrigation. Continue reading Pico de Orizaba hiking trip

Passing through Puebla

We stayed overnight in Puebla to meet our mountain guide “Oso” (The Bear) the next day to start our hiking trip to Pico de Orizaba. We were only there a short time but we really enjoyed the atmosphere in Puebla. The town is bustling, clean, and had more foreign tourists than any other place we’ve been on this trip. The town square (Zocalo) is blocked from auto traffic on the weekends, and it becomes a very festive, family friendly kind of carnival in the center of the city. The town is known for it’s candy shops, and there’s actually an entire street lined with just candy shops. The shops primarily sell traditional Mexican treats like candied fruit and nuts. However, there are a few treats that are unique to Puebla. One of them, and one that seems to be loved by many, is called camotes. Camotes are like little natural fruit tootsie rolls (except bigger), and I gotta say, they have a really disgusting gritty texture that I didn’t care for. They also tasted entirely too “natural”, that is, not nearly enough sugar, chemicals, and coloring. When I say I want strawberry, or lime, or orange candy, what I really want is “strawberry”, or “lime”, or “orange” candy. Another sweet treat to be found only in Puebla is called “Tortitas de Santa Clara”, and these things were an entirely different story. Continue reading Passing through Puebla

Photography Gestapo & Mexican Hairless dogs

Visited a big museum today and met some more of Martha’s family who are also in town visiting. We visited the Dolores Olmedo museum, which is basically a collection of art and artifacts from a VERY rich lady. A large part of the museum is collections of art from Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo, actually bigger collections than in the museums that carry their namesakes!

The museum begins with a tour of the founder’s actual house, which contains a lot of artifacts and photos from around the world. A large portion of items on display in the house are elaborate ivory carvings. Hence, Martha’s grandparents referred to it as “The Ivory Museum.” This part of the museum provided some real entertainment for me personally. One thing I’ve noticed in my brief time here is that Mexican bureaucrats absolutely LOVE crafting nonsensical ambiguous rules that they can choose to enforce arbitrarily. An example that created no small amount of drama yesterday was a sign at a museum that said no bags allowed inside, they have to be checked at the desk. Meanwhile, we’re in line watching multiple obese women with equally obese purses entering without a second glance. Continue reading Photography Gestapo & Mexican Hairless dogs

Coyoacan & Chapultepec

Started out the day in Coyoacan and browsed around a market there. They have a lot of the local crafts and such, but generally of a higher quality and without the aggressive sales tactics at a lot of tourist areas. There was an artisan there selling the traditional carved and painted animals from the Oaxaca area. They had a display of these at the Mexico area in EPCOT years ago and we’ve never seen one’s of that high quality for sale other than from this guy, so we picked up a couple small ones.

Also of note for a certain one of our friends that just can’t get enough of the stuff: every imaginable variant of MOLE!!!! The vendor’s name: “Gour-Mole” mmmm..mmmm =)

There’s also some museums in the Coyoacan area and we went to the Leon Trotsky museum…. kind of an interesting story. The short version is that he was a Russian exiled in Mexico City, who was ultimately killed by assassins from Stalin. The Google or The Wikipedia could do his story more justice than I could. Anyhow, it should be interesting as a reference when we visit Stalin related sites in Moscow.
Continue reading Coyoacan & Chapultepec

Here, There, and (hopefully) Back