GRINNELL COLLEGE SINGERS TOUR TO THE BALTIC STATES
MARCH 17 - APRIL 2, 2000
Probably the most hectic part of the planning was making sure that ALL of the choir could go on the trip. For most of the members that meant a valid passport that would not expire less than 6 months after the trip commenced and a visa to Russia. There were a few incidents in regard to the general populace getting their affairs in order but those were the least of the worries. There were also four foreign students who were traveling with the group, one on a British passport was much the same as the U.S. travelers but the other three were more interesting in that all needed letters of invitation and visas to all countries, Finland, Estonia, Russia and the Czech Republic.
The three students were from India, Indonesia (Philippine Passport) and Mainland China. Getting all of these could not have been done without help from "It's Easy" a passport clearing house in New York, at least in the short time period we had to work within. The Chinese student proved to be the most challenging both politically and from the point that each visa she had into the U.S. was a SINGLE ENTRY visa meaning she would need a new one once she was on the plane leaving Newark for Europe.
We worked this out by making arrangements through our U.S. senator's office and secured the necessary information to expedite our getting the return visa. By doing this, the normal 10 day wait for a visa was reduced to 15 minutes once we submitted the paperwork in Prague. We issued the senator our entire itinerary and they were able to set up an appointment in the U.S. Embassy in Prague to process the return visa.
We received most of the visas within 10-14 days of departure but the 3 foreign students were still in need of having theirs processed. The last one was processed on Thursday morning, the day before our early Friday morning departure from Grinnell. Since there was no way to mail these to us and get them there in time, our travel agent picked up the visas from the clearing house and hand delivered them to us at the Newark airport Friday afternoon, in time for processing and departure for Europe. Close but perfect.
Our trip started off rather bizarre. We left Grinnell a few minutes past our posted departure time and traveled pretty much within the allotted time to pick up our Guitar player, Oleg, in Iowa City. The plan was to pick him up at the McDonalds just south of Interstate 80 on 1st Avenue. (McDonalds make good land marks but this one is best forgotten as it is hard to get a bus into the parking lot, even when the lot is empty.
1st Avenue slopes downhill in this area and at 5 AM, there is very little light for one to see signs, much less land marks. The driver pulled into the KFC lot just before the McDonalds. We pulled through their parking lot swinging into a narrow dirt driveway between the two establishments. McDonalds was down an 8 foot embankment, but we were able to get Oleg and his things and put all on the bus. As we were leaving, the front of the first bus bottomed out on the street as we entered. We made the turn and headed for the stop light a good 1/3 - 1/2 mile away. There we stopped as the 2nd bus was no longer behind us. Our driver headed for the gas station on the west side of the street that had a huge parking lot.
Upon stopping he left the bus and walked in the direction of the other bus. I waited but then decided I should see what was up as we were only getting later for our 9:45 appointment with the airline. As I turned the corner, I saw the second bus nearly totally blocking the street in front of the KFC. Upon arriving at the scene I discovered that the bus was hung up on the driveway and street and both drivers were trying to put landscape timbers under the tires and move the bus. An earlier attempt was made by the occupants of the second bus to push it, but the bus was rather big and rather firmly rooted in its predicament. A wrecker had been called and it looked like it would be a futile attempt for both drivers to stay with each other and try to free the bus. I managed to talk them into having the one bus head on towards Chicago and the other bus could follow once it was freed. Unfortunately, the second driver did not have the cash or credit card to take care of extracting the bus so the first driver walked back to his bus, back the scene and then back to the bus. We were now about an hour behind schedule.
Upon entering the freeway again, we came across an accident where a semi tractor was totally burned down to just the frame. Although I was not able to get a precise answer, it sounded as though it was not a fatality but a truck hauling paint that somehow had caught fire. Fortunately, the load did not get involved, but the west bound lanes of the freeway were plugged pretty good. It was good we were going east that day.
We had a choice of two locations to meet our flight in Chicago, one at the Continental desk in terminal 2 or the International terminal, #5. The 800 number was totally useless in giving information of this nature - "press 1 for this, press 2 for that, and if it ain't press-able, you are plumb out of luck". We guessed correctly at terminal 2 and started to unload the bus there. I ran into the terminal to double check. After making sure things were going OK, I came back to the bus to collect my things. I picked up my briefcase and coat and went down for my suitcase. The baggage bays on the bus were now closed and not seeing my bag, figured that someone from the group had taken it inside the terminal. Upon returning, the bus had left. Since I had quickly dropped off my suitcase in Grinnell near the loading area before taking attendance, I figured it was possible for the bag to have been loaded on the second bus.
After a wait of about 25 minutes, I started becoming concerned that the second bus was not there yet. One of the students said they had seen a bus driving around with RSB on it and I said, "that's our bus". I figured that at least they had made the airport, now it was just a matter of flagging them down to unload. Yeah, low bid. The first bus driver had not been to O'Hare in 20 years and we were not sure that the 2nd driver had ever been there. The first guy was so worried about the airport police giving him a hard time for stopping his bus that he was not really worried about anything other than moving the bus. I've been to that airport before. If anything, the police are a lot of bark and not too much bite. The last thing I think they want are buses endlessly circling the drop off and pick up areas waiting for their loads. They have always allowed plenty of time for groups to board or disembark.
After unloading the second bus and not finding my suitcase, I asked if there was any way of contacting the other bus. The driver said no. He then took off and I tried to find out from the airport folks if a bag had been turned in. None had. I even called back to Grinnell to make sure that a bag had not been left in the loading area, but I was sure everything was clear as I was the last one on the bus. It was now time to board the plane for Newark and I was busy contemplating my next move, other than I was traveling awful light for a 16 day journey to Eastern Europe. We arrived in Newark and had to get boarding passes from Czech Air for the flight to Prague. Our travel agent or someone had messed something up and had assumed that one of the students with the same last name and I were traveling together. She was always the first one at the ticket counter so she had fun explaining the situation to them and telling them that she was not going to pick up my boarding pass for me. When I arrived at the counter, they had some questions about me but I had no idea what was going on. Upon getting my boarding pass, I found out that the two of us had three bags checked between us. Not such a big deal as many of the students were checking a suitcase and garment bag and those checking only one bag also had a box of programs to check. When I ran into my "traveling companion" later, I found out that she had checked one bag and that I had only checked the instrument/equipment case.
We arrived in Prague and needed to obtain yet another boarding pass for the leg to Helsinki. Just before boarding the plane, the airport folks asked us all to go down and identify every bag that was on the carts on the runway. On the very last cart was my suitcase. At least I did not have to worry about the plan for replacing the clothes anymore. I found out the story when we arrived back in Chicago about two weeks later.
The driver of the second bus on our first trip was also the driver of the second bus on our return trip. He asked me if I was still wearing the same clothes. I said no. He then said that he caught up with the first driver about 20 miles down the road and asked him if he had everything off the bus as we were missing a bag. He said he did, but upon inspection found my bag under the bus. They made a quick return to the airport arriving within minutes of flight time. Somehow they convince the counter folks that my bag needed to be checked onto the plane on which we were leaving. Obviously, they made it.
One of the more common questions I have been asked is which city or which country did I like the best. I always hesitate as I am not sure if I have a favorite city or country. Each one was unique in its own way but if I had the choose, I would probably choose either Helsinki Finland or Prague Czech Republic as the number one position but I might lean slightly towards Prague as it seems to have a deeper and richer history.
Finland, despite recovering from winter with sandy streets and by-ways, was probably the cleanest of the countries. I must say that I felt very much at home in Finland, especially since I really enjoy Northern Minnesota and, if I did not know better, I would have said that we flew in a big circle and landed in the heart of northern Minnesota. The March temperatures in southern Finland are very similar to what one might find in the Minneapolis - Duluth area about this time of the year. Snow is still around in some places but melting rather rapidly. The Northern Minnesota flavor is quite evident in the roadways but more-so in the pine trees, birch trees and the granite that highlights the landscape. The prices in Finland are about just as steep as those in Northern Minnesota during tourist season. Turku and Helsinki
Estonia was much nicer than I was expecting. As a former Soviet entity, I was expecting something more on a Russian or eastern culture and community. Much of this still exists but the Estonians seem to be deeply committed to being a player in the Western European Community rather than in the Russian or Asian world. It seems the Estonians were not real happy in the Soviet Empire and did not particularly like to ask old father Moscow for permission for everything they did. Most of the time, they no longer needed the permission when they finally received it as the opportunity that required it evaporated by the time they received it. The Estonians were at the brunt of the Russian retaliation for defecting from the Soviet Union and lost much of their economy and means of living when the Russians pulled out their support and "business" in the collapse of the USSR. Estonia had a hard time for about the first three years but now seems to be moving along on their own. Prices are substantially lower than Finland making it a favorite spot for the Fins to visit to do bargain shopping and liquor purchases. The people are quite friendly although it is somewhat hard to understand them as they mainly speak Estonian and Finnish with some Russian because of their ties to them for so many years. Occasionally you can find someone who speaks English and I would suspect that this will increase over the years. The water, although not recommended to drink from the tap, did not appear to be as bad as I was expecting. In Rakvere, the hotel found items left behind by our group, informed us of what it was and is making attempts to return it. When did that last happen in the good ole' USA? All of this in mind, I think the government of Estonia is having a little bit of struggle shedding the strict procedures. It did take us a good 45 or more minutes just to leave the Estonian checkpoint on our way to Russia. Tallin
I am not sure what to think about Russia. It is not quite is bad as I was expecting but it was probably closer to the "bad" I was expecting than any of the other countries. Here is a country with severe poverty, despite the "wonderful" communist influence for so many years. I still have a somewhat hesitant view of the Russians and worried more about not messing things up in this country as I certainly did not want to stay or be detained there.
St. Petersburg, well, it is a very, very large city of 5 million and one needs to keep this in perspective as cities in this country of that size tend to have similar problems when it comes to affluence and non-affluence and everything else that goes along with large cities. It is easy to see why the czars were eliminated near the beginning of the last century. They really lived in elegance and splendor in their palaces. Hey, St. Petersburg has many architectural splendors and is quite beautiful in many areas and places. Much of this is due to the czars but now it might be more of a challenge to retain some of that beauty in a land of not as many means. The Winter Palace and Palace Square make up many acres along the river in St. Petersburg. Here the ruling elite entertained and conducted most of the affairs of the country. In the summer, they would retreat to a nearby village where the Summer Palace stood. The summer palace was significantly smaller than the Winter Palace and was used for more intimate and private affairs rather than large public ones. During W.W.II, the Germans took over the Summer Palace and basically destroyed it before leaving. Many of the palace furnishings had been removed prior to the German occupation and were moved to eastern Russia and Siberia. After the war, the palace was reconstructed using many pictures and drawing to assist the craftsmen in restoring it to its splendor.
A question was asked - Why was this done? The communists did not condone the czars nor their way of living, yet they looked at the palaces as national treasures and restored them as such. Today the Winter Palace or Hermitage houses a museum and gallery that has more Rembrandts than any other gallery in the world.
Poverty and the "mob" seems to be everywhere. Crossing the Russian border we were confronted by a Mafia like group that stopped the bus to sell insurance. No one was quite sure what the insurance was other than maybe we better pay it to keep partners down the road from causing trouble, not that they would not anyway. Moving through the countryside towards St. Petersburg, we encountered many patrols along the road. We tried not to attract their attention as we were not sure if they might be looking for more than the occasional Russian going a little too fast along the road. Between the patrols were homes and towns, some almost in squalor. As we arrived in St. Petersburg, the slums were quite evident. It was not until we started getting closer to the central part of the city that conditions seemed to improve. Some of this is the natural by-product of a large city but I wonder if there just might be a little more here than in the average large city.
I am not sure if I trust the Russians or not. It seems that we were told that we would need to pre-purchase tickets to various things as a group. For instance, we needed to know how many were going to the Hermitage Museum, the Opera, the Summer Palace and the Circus. The price ranges quoted for these were from $12 for the Hermitage and the Summer Palace, to $20 for the circus and $37 for the opera. These prices never seemed to appear on any of the ticket boards at the various attractions, only general admission prices in rubles. These prices were substantially lower, usually asking just a few rubles for each. We were told that the Russians pay high taxes thus the low fees. Since I never saw posted prices for foreigners, I wonder if each tour guide would set their own price then go and get the tickets and pocket the difference. We collected for the Hermitage visit just before we left. The guides were checking off the names of all the folks who paid but they did not seem to have a number of tickets purchased as a number of folks did not participate in the event but they took our word for it. In other words, there did not seem to be a good checks and balances or accounting system in place.
An interesting observation that you might enjoy is the means of driving and passing vehicles. I have seen some of this in this country but never realized that maybe it came from Russia. In the future, I will probably just pass these folks off as some Russians that think they are still in the Father Land. The roads are a tad wider than the typical Iowa road but the entire right-of-way is probably not much different. If the driver in front of you is not plowing along fast enough, you simply start to pass. Generally, one uses a little discretion in this endeavor, but it appears there are some rather interesting rules here. There did not appear to be any "passing"/"no passing" zones. You simply wait until it is somewhat clear and then begin to pass. If you do not have quite enough room, no problem. Usually you are straddling the center line while the car being overtaken slides towards the right shoulder and the car approaching you slides towards the left shoulder. It works. Don't ask me how, but I saw it. It helps if the other two vehicles are rather narrow and small though.
Speed limits seem to be about the same on almost all of the roads. 75-100 km/h or roughly 45-60 miles/hour. During the summer in Finland, two lane roads can increase to about 120 km/hour. Interesting road signs include electric speed limit signs in Finland where the speed can be adjusted to the different road conditions. Another sign is the occasional temperature sign where both the air temperature and ground temperature are displayed. These appeared in both Finland and the Czech Republic and I can see where and experienced driver can use this information to drive safely in some of the more treacherous temperature ranges for driving. The Czech Republic also sported wind socks (airport style but smaller) on many of their bridges and exposed open areas. These are of great assistance in judging wind sheer and velocity.
Back in St. Petersburg, I found the water to be as bad as we were told. Even in our 3 star hotel, the water came out of the faucet a tad on the yellow side. Drinking it was forbidden but I wonder how clean we really were after showering. Then again, one can take a dip in many of our lakes and come out about just as clean. I also found the people to be somewhat friendly BUT very, very few speak English. It is probably like this country. Very few of us speak anything other than English and very few of them probably speak nothing other than Russian. The Russian alphabet, following more that of the Greek style, does not lend for easy transitions to the more Latin styles of most of the European and English languages.
Safety and Security
While I am in Russia, I may as well answer another question. Did I feel safe in any of these countries or cities? Yes, I think I did. One of the things I noticed, especially in St. Petersburg, was that there were a lot of mothers and children on the streets as well as many crowds of folks. If one tried to blend into the crowd, no one would know the difference. I even had folks in a couple places try to get directions and information from me and I think they were more surprised that I was not a native than I was surprised to have been asked. Oh, sure, around the tourist spots you will get hit by the various street vendors, more prominent in St. Petersburg than anywhere else, but then you can always blame those encounters on the bus. About the only buses in these areas are tourist buses and folks walking in these areas are generally tourists trying to get to their buses, so, it is very hard to disguise yourself when riding a bus.
I must admit, I tried to emulate and dress like a native - more-so than one member of our group who walked through Russia in sandals. That ain't no misprint. You "read right" and you should have seen the Russians look at her. Her comment was that at home folks look and comment about the poor choice in footwear whereas the Russians just seemed to look, giggle amongst themselves but otherwise say nothing. Even one of OUR Russians traveling with us as interpreters mentioned something about dressing to keep from getting sick and jeopardizing the mission of the group. The arrival in Prague dispelled how much she listened. She was sick for both of the Czech Republic concerts. (I will not comment further on this other than I sided with our resident Russian).
Leaving Russia was less dramatic than entering. Upon arriving we had to unload the entire bus, make out customs sheets and run our luggage through x-ray machines similar to the airport security checks. One needed to guard their customs sheet with their life, just like their passport, if they had anything valuable that they did not purchase in Russia and wanted to keep it with them when they left. By the way, not everything that you buy in Russia can be taken home with you. You really need to be aware of this if you are going to buy something of any value. Apparently objects of art, minerals and a few other things can be purchased in Russia but unless you have the proper papers to go along with these items, you may not remove them. They are worried about their national treasures leaving the country.
Getting back to leaving, we simply arrived at the airport and basically checked in. The customs control for leaving the country and airport security check were the same procedure so it did not take much more time than going through a normal airport security check. This is all well and fine except that we did this about 11 PM at night. Our original afternoon flight was canceled and luckily our travel agent had some clout with the airline that he managed to get them to operate a flight at midnight to get us to Prague in time to stay somewhat on schedule. We were fortunate enough to leave St. Petersburg about midnight and arrive in Prague at about 12:30 AM. Pretty neat, huh? They ain't that close together. We gained two time zones on the flight making the 1:30 AM hotel check-in seem somewhat reasonable under the circumstances. The 9 AM appointment at the U.S. Embassy made for a rather short night.
The Czech Republic is a very nice place to visit. It is so nice in fact that one of our Russian translators decided that he would spend his entire sabbatical there next year. While on the trip he found an apartment that was suitable to his needs and somewhere near the "downtown" area so he did not have to waste time commuting. He mentioned that typical central city locations might run in the neighborhood of $1000-$1500 per month and that he found an apartment for $500 per month. In the outskirts of the city near the location of our hotel, one might find something in the $100-$200 per month range.
The Czechs seem to be very proud of their culture and country. I found them to be very friendly and helpful even though we did not speak their language. One of our guides apologized for the country not being more cosmopolitan and western but it was more western than I was anticipating. They made their break from the Soviet influence in 1989 with the Velvet rebellion where they more or less peacefully made a radical change in the affairs of their government. The people and the businesses seem to be working towards a western European lifestyle but the government officials seem somewhat reluctant to change. In some aspects, it has an almost police state type system that is hard to change. I sort of noticed it and the residents I asked about it said it was indeed there, at least for now.
An example might be building entrances. Buildings with four entrance doors, a vestibule and four more entrance doors were probably the most obvious. In this country, we generally open all eight doors, or open one or two of the most obvious ones and the ones directly ahead of them on the other side of the vestibule. On more than one occasion, I witnessed one of the outside doors open and the one leading from the vestibule to the inside of the building was not the one directly in front of the first but the one on the opposite side of the vestibule. I commented, "oh, it's an energy savings method". "Energy savings?" They looked at me as if they did not know what that was all about. Apparently, the serpentine entrance into the building is more a matter of someone exerting their control over the populace more than anything else.
And watch out for the police. You might not think they are out there as they do not usually travel around the streets burning up the petroleum like our "boys in blue" do, but they disguise themselves on various street corners and along the lanes and by-ways. You will know when all of a sudden you hit a check point and you are motioned over for inspection. Most of the time it would be for driving too fast.
STREET CARS AND BUSSES
I made an interesting observation in Estonia. Tallinn has many street cars (trams, trollies, - the light street railroad). With very few exceptions, most of the street cars had women motormen operating them. On the contrary, with even more exceptions, the buses were all operated by men. Upon asking the guide about this, it appears to be just what it is. The street cars are easier to manuever. They follow a fixed guideway and require only basic moves; starts, stops, door openings and closings. The buses on the other hand require moving into and out of traffice and steering on various road surfaces. Because the street cars are easier to handle, most of them are operated by the women and the tougher job of driving the bus is performed by the men.
Another observation in Estonia was that despite its being a soviet entity for so many years, the quality of life and affluence seems to be more prevelent there. I noticed our tour buses sitting in the square in St. Petersburg with many Russian tour buses. Our seemed to be much cleaner, newer and more colorful than the others. One of our buses had horses on it and the other had a bird with quite colorful backgrounds.
The Finnish and Estonian tour buses were similar in accomodation to buses in the U.S. Don't jump ahead, the European style buses have more seating and larger window for better viewing but the buses were basically transportation vehicles with luggage space and a jump seat for the tour guide. Many U.S. buses now sport the jump seats for the tour guide. One of our Czech buses was somewhat similar to this but the other was similar to the central Europe buses where the driver is the proprieter of a tour experience complete with a canteen right on the bus. This bus was outfitted for beverage service. I rode the other bus so I am not sure if anyone took part of the service. It looked like more of an assortment of teas than anything else.
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revised: Sunday, June 18, 2000 10:47 PM