Aug 10

“TIR, baby. TIR”

Ever notice how a movie will sometime introduce a new expression or phrase into the public 
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consciousness? The Bogart/Bergman 1942 classic, ‘Casablanca’ may hold the all-time record for unveiling memorable such bon mots as:
– “Here’s looking at you, kid.“
– “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
– “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
And my personal favorite…
– “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

The Tom Cruise flick, ‘Jerry Maguire,’ contributed a signature phrase as well: “You had me at hello.” I use that with Ed every now and then.
 
And, then, there’s a fairly obscure Leonardo DiCaprio movie called ‘Blood Diamond,’ which donated a line that’s resonated beautifully with my last two climbing trips: "TIA, baby. TIA." For Leo, and his co-stars, in that particular epic, TIA stood for the ‘This is Africa.’ The main characters used the expression whenever anything that could go wrong did so.
 
TIA worked well when we climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa. Quite simply, there was no infrastructure to speak of, and one could count on Big Brother not doing his part.
 
But a variation of TIA, "TIR, baby. TIR" worked even better in Russia, a country that I’d be hard pressed to categorize as Second World, must less First World.
 
Let me begin by saying that Russia is unlike any nation I’ve ever visited. It embraces insularity. Russians have no real interest in the outside world. Period. It’s all about Medvedev, Putin, and where the next meal is coming from. At the same time, Russia’s Communist-era transportation infrastructure makes a bumper-to-bumper, parking lot-like, jam on the Belt Parkway seem like a walk in the park.
 
Here’s just a sampling of the TIR experiences we faced:
– In the midst of its fifth straight week of 100-plus degree temperatures, St. Petersburg boasted few, if, any, air conditioned buildings. To make matters worse, the powers that be decided to create monumental mid-day traffic delays by sending Con Ed-type guys with acetylene torches to repair antiquated trolley systems. Excuse this Amerikanski, but why couldn’t the repair work wait for cooler weather?
– Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, not only uses vintage, 1960s era Soviet airplanes, but allows passengers to smoke freely in the bathrooms. They also feature female flight attendants who could easily land positions as offensive guards with any NFL team. And, god knows what type of food they serve. It defies description.
– Mineral Vody in Southern Russia has already been named one of the world’s top five worst airports (I’m surprised to hear there are four other airports that provide even worse customer service). I’d liken Mineral Vody to Manhattan’s Penn Station at its absolute worst. Imagine the hottest possible mid-August day when all train service has been suspended because of yet another Amtrak signal problem. All of a sudden, though, one train miraculously begins receiving passengers and thousands swarm one small entrance portal. That’s Mineral Vody International Airport. The place reminded me of an NHL ice hockey game with 3,000 passengers hip checking and body slamming their way into the 150 or so available seats on the one departing flight to Moscow.
– And, speaking of Moscow, there’s a city that bore all the characteristics of a metropolis laid low by nuclear winter. Air temperatures stagnated above 100 degree for the fifth straight week. Carbon monoxide fumes, in combination with the soot and ash from rampant forest fires, restricted visibility to a city block or less. Moscovites who could find them wore surgical masks to mitigate the intake of carcinogenic materials in the air. We tourists dealt with it. Oh, and the sun reminded me of an ‘about-to-die’ 60-watt light bulb that barely penetrated the murky atmosphere.
– When picking up a few essentials at a local St. Petersburg supermarket, I was asked by the cash register attendant if I'd like a bag. "Da," I replied with a smile. She promptly threw one in my face.

Getting out of Dodge was no treat either. The fine folks at Moscow’s international airport were next to useless in terms of helping us find our KLM check-in counter. To wit, our queries elicited such responses as:
– "KLM is in Terminal F."
– "Who told you KLM is in Terminal F? It’s in Terminal E."
– "You’re in the wrong terminal. Next!"
– At Terminal E, we finally found a KLM gate agent who said: "Where you want to go? JKF? What that?"
 
Russia may be the most insular society I’ve yet to encounter. The many residents with whom I spoke have no interest in geopolitics, the U.S., Obama, or bin Laden (one mountain guide shrugged his shoulders when asked about bin Laden and sighed, “He’s your problem now.”).
 
From a personality standpoint, Russians seem to come in two varieties: warm and engaging or lobotomized robots. They either hug and kiss you or simply ignore you. There is no happy medium.
 
The more I see of foreign countries and cultures, the more I appreciate what we have here in the U.S. Whether it’s Singapore, Malaysia, Tanzania or Russia, there really is no place like home (which, coming full circle, was one of the signature lines from the 1939 classic, ‘The Wizard of Oz’).
 
So I end by saying, “Spasibo and dasvedanya, comrades. Give me a buzz if you’re headed to Russia anytime soon. The sanity you save may be your own.”

Jul 28

You don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the U.S.S.R.

Phoenix and its 116 degree heat and Manhattan with its hazy, hot and humid spell of six million
St-petersburg-russia straight, 90 degree days have nothing on St. Petersburg, Russia.

Having had the pleasure of touring the historic Czarist city the past few days, I can report on the following:

The Russians don't do air conditioning. Period. And, that's not a good thing. I thought London struggled with excessively high heat, but the Brits could learn a trick or two from the plucky Russians. Most merely shrug their shoulders, sigh and deal with it. As Pauline, our tour guide put it: “Your Mr. Albert Gore was sure right about his world warming theory, da?”

To begin with, there's St. Petersburg's overall miasma: daytime temperatures soar well in excess of 100 degrees (F). But, unlike Phoenix and it’s much heralded and over-hyped 'dry heat,' the humidity here is Vietnamese jungle-like in its intensity (courtesy of its proximity to the Baltic Sea).

Stir in absolutely no carbon dioxide emission standards whatsoever, never-ending road construction work which sears the air with a heady aroma of burning tar and a sun that, due to our extreme Northern exposure, doesn't set until 11pm and one gets hot, hot, hot to paraphrase another pop song.

But St. Petersburg's special charm is its cigarette-addicted populace. When it came to conquering the Russian population, Napoleon and Hitler should have studied Phillip Morris instead of Carl von Clausewitz. Nearly every uber attractive, scantily-clad Russian lass can be seen strolling the Neskiye Prospekt with a cigarette dangling from her lips. And, the men puff away just as enthusiastically. So, if you're an investor, hang onto your tobacco stocks- Phillip Morris is making a killing here, literally.

On the plus side, St. Petersburg has beautifully restored 17th and 18th century Russian Orthodox churches on virtually every street corner. They also have a subway system that is clean and cool. (Yes, I said, cool. I was actually thinking of bedding down in one for the night.) There are also lots of historic sites for the hyperactive tourist. (But, one morning of inhaling noxious fumes and sweating through my clothes many times over was enough to put a damper on any extended tours for this blogger.)
 
Another plus is the World War II memorabilia. The Russians proudly display many of the weapons used to fight back the Nazi siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg's name during the Communist regime). And, there's even a brief tour of the Astoria Hotel (not to be confused with NYC's Waldorf-Astoria) where Hitler had already made plans to host a gala celebration of the fall of Leningrad. (As our guide, Pauline, beamed, “So, he did not have the chance for that, no? So, instead, Stalin came here and he give big, big celebration.”)

I found it curious that there were no statues or murals of Stalin to be found, but Lenin is everywhere. I guess those 30 million mass murders tended to dampen the Russians' pride in Uncle Joe.

Anyway, my climbing team leaves St. Petersburg this morning for a day-long flight South to Mineral Vody in the Caucasus Mountains, where we begin our assault on 18,840 foot Mt Elbrus. With cell service being as scarce as tobacco and nicotine are plentiful, this blogger doubts he'll be able to file an update until we reach Moscow midweek of next week. Here's hoping in advance that Moscow copes with the heat a little bit better than its neighbor to the North.

St. Petersburg was nice to visit, but here's one comrade who wouldn't want to live there. Dasvedanya, Amerikanskis.