Hotel Gulag

December 28, 2007

Aeroflot airlines exceeded my expectations in some ways and fell far short in others. It did indeed have the hammer and sickle on the side of the plane (though more subtle than I assumed). But the plane itself was modern enough other than the contrast-challenged television or exploding overhead bin raining down luggage on unsuspecting passengers. The meals were mediocre to bad (standard Russian airline food being some kind of boiled chicken with rice), although they surprised me with a breakfast burrito, a rarity even in New York.

We landed in Moscow and after much confusion a small group of Indians and myself were led to a processing area. We waited for about an hour as the pale, unsmiling Russians decided how best to transport us. They loaded us into a bus for a short drive to the hotel passing oil refineries, boxy Soviet-era cars, many security guards, construction sites, piles of black snow, and chain link fences with barbed wire all dusted with a film of brown exhaust.

They bunked the Indians two to a room while I remained solo in a double room (the privilege of an American passport?). The room was comfortable enough without any frills. The landscape outside the window was industrial waste and desolation. There was a small Nokia television in the corner missing a back button that broadcast mostly French and Russian stations, though it did have BBC news and CNN. They brought me food almost immediately (chicken and rice!) and I soon succumbed to jet lag. I awoke to someone coming into my room rather than knocking.

"Uh... hello?"

"Hi mate. I'm your new roommate. Speak English?"

Dean was an Aussie from Perth that had missed his connecting flight to Prague after sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes. The Russians had put him up the hotel last minute and had neglected to tell me he'd be sharing my room. Bastards! I thought to myself, but Dean was a nice enough guy and we talked about his travels. He was a junior high school math teacher on paid vacation and had been dating a Czech girl for about a year in Australia until her visa ran out. He was now moving to a small town north of Prague to live with her there. He was roughly my age or older, a good looking well-traveled and well-read liberal guy who took a modest interest in history and politics, "Russian babes" and Czech women. Needless to say we got along swimmingly.

After another meal (he of chicken croquettes and me of beef tips?) we ventured out of the room to find the hotel bar. We were immediately met by a security guard inquiring why we were leaving the room.

"Hey, we're just going down to the bar to have a couple drinks and try you wi-fi".

"You no leave room. You stay."

"Well, we're not leaving the hotel, we're just getting drinks."

"No visa, no leave room," he snarled in his thick Russian accent. Dean and I looked at each other hopelessly and the Indians came out into the hallway looking wide-eyed.

"We're trapped here," they said. "They only have wine on the room service menu."

We all slunk back to our rooms to try to pass the night as best as possible. Dean and I talked Russian women, American politics, the environment, European history, and travel. He was a great guy and I offered to put him up in New York should he ever visit. He left me with his e-mail labeled "Dean from Gulag".

Dean left and I was awoken by room service and escorted down to a holding area for breakfast with the other prison... er, Indians. Packed tightly in an elevator the Indians looked nervous while the Russian security looked dour, his doughy pimply face still unsmiling. Each floor revealed another strange, unsmiling Russian face staring straight through us, unhappily trapped as we were in this hotel. As with all our Russian food, breakfast was meager, but it bonded me to the Indians so that we became friends and they gave me advice on navigating India. They even helped me through customs and finding my bag at the airport. A nice 22 year old kid, Abhishek, whom I'd snagged a couple beers before the flight at the airport gave me his mother's number in Delhi in case I ran into trouble. And, of course, he asked me if I was on Facebook.

I arrived in Delhi to the sad news that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. I stood in customs staring at the screen trying to understand what had happened while Russians pushed past me roughly, still unsmiling.