Sunday, August 21, 2005

On visas and immigration cards

On keeping track of passports and registrations. When I started this, one purpose was too leave a little more knowledge behind of what to expect over here. We've already covered the economic part - this is no longer the Russia of the Soviet era stereotype. Goods are widely available. Wages are still very low, but there is plenty of business being done. Levis don't sell for 4 times their US value, and a pack of Marlboros won't get you a ride anywhere in town any more. Now on to passports and registrations. You've got to have a visa to get here, and the government takes visas and all very seriously. On the other hand, customs was much less vigilant coming in than I would have expected in the US. Copies of your passport and visa: just have a couple copies available in your luggage, in your purse, etc. If you lose your passport, or have to give to someone to process the various permissions you may need, then you still have some proof of who you are and what you are doing.

You have to have an immigrant registration card in addition to your visa on entering the country, and you keep it with you at all times. It's like the US I-94 (?), but they are more stringent. You also have to register your location at all times. This gets stamped on your registration card, or sometimes your visa. Getting it stamped on your registration card is better, but I wouldn't try to communicate this when I don't speak the language. You have 72 hours in any location grace period. After that you had better be registered. Big fines if somebody requests ID and you're not right. Any time you leave the country, your immigration card and registration are automatically kaput, and you need to start anew on returning. It's really pretty simple once you get the hang of it.

For normal tourists the next won't apply, but if you are here on business, things get stickier. For instance, I need a special ID for the camp I live in, as it is administered or protected by the Russian Fed govt. I also have to have another ID for the office here, because it is in a restricted installation. Always ask. More often than not I haven't been fully updated about what I need to do until after I have already done it. Regular expats take it all for granted, or they forget, etc. etc. blah blah blah. So anyway, I brought extra passport photos, and when those ran out, I got some more extra, just to be helpful if it was required. That may be the smallest thing you could do, but it has come in handy once anyway.

Something not often noted is that you can register your location with the US consular service as well, via an internet site. This may prove helpful in an emergency. It is also a good thing to watch for the traveler's advisories about fraud, etc. You'll get some tips on the types of crimes to be watchful for. You may have read my earlier post about the change bank "quick count". Other visitors have been reporting other types of crimes at various times. There was a lot of credit card ripoffs a couple of years ago. I don't know if they are still happening, but it seemed like the reports I saw were mostly about 2 years old. So maybe that gang moved on or got busted or something. Who knows? I'm still more cautious than in the US about which ATMs I use and how well I hide my PIN input. For anyone who wants to think I'm stereotyping or whitewashing - whichever, I'm more cautious in the US for violent crime. I haven't gotten the vibes for that as much here. But don't take my word for it, just follow the advice travel experts always say - when you don't speak the language or know the customs you are a target for certain types of crime. Anywhere. Cheers!

Chelyabinsk shopping observations

We went to Chelyabinsk shopping today. Nice experience. First thing I will say is that you can smell some air pollution, but it is worse in or near the streets (vehicular pollution). This is one reason why the town smelled to me when I first passed through. When you're driving through town you are always on the street. The air is still not pristine though. On returning to the camp the difference is noticeable to me - although I will admit I think I am sensitive to this.

The city itself is pretty in spots. It doesn't look poor, but it is not in the best of repair either. It seems far more rural than a city of 1 million people would in the US or Canada. In this regard it fits the pattern I have seen here. The affluence is still too new to have acquired the automobile flavor of other cities of the same size in other first world countries. The city fits the pattern of economic growth and activity I saw in Moscow, although slightly more subdued. The economy wasn't just Moscow.

On returning to Chumlak I again notice more details, and the town seems less 3rd world than unindustrialized European. I can see large brick buildings that appear abandoned or disused. They have a similar appearance to farm structures I've seen in the US. I wonder if they were farm structures not so long ago. This would fit with appearances to me. Although I could really be off on this, a scenario where this village is on the upswing, but went through some bad times recently would fit to my way of looking. It could have been that there was a larger farm operation here in the Soviet era, but at some point it shut down. Now changes have grown into place a little, and the economy is swinging up. Everywhere I've been things seem like that. I don't see desperation - not riches either, but not rags.


Friday, August 19, 2005

Gdye magazin?

Where is the store? "Gdye magazin?"

I walk to the town tonite. The weather is absolutely beautiful. Couldn't be better. On the way I notice some rain clouds coming in waves though. It is so flat I see them from eons away. Some of them coming look quite black and widespread, so I'm thinking I have made a mistake in not bringing my umbrella. It is still beautiful. The walk seems longer than 2 kilometres to town. It's quite probably not. It takes me about a half hour to walk in to town. At 4 mph, that would be about 1.75 kilometres. It is much more comfortable than walking on the city pavement - as I spend most of my walking time on the roadside. It is hard gravel, but this is softer than pavement.

It is a village - about 1k population they say, but the actual village center would surprise me if it held 500. Close up it does not look quite so "shacktown" as it does driving through fast. Walking you can see the lumber and work involved. There is still plenty of patchwork using, ahem, cough, "available materials". I walk in to town, and say hello to a babushka walking towards the street. I ask her where the market is. She understands my pronunciation of market, so she points. It could have been less obvious I suppose, but I don't know how. It was a half block up and on the main street, with a half dozen or so people out front.
Four of those people out front are babushkas selling a little produce - almost certainly that they have grown. No fruit, just veggies, and I am more than a little shy, so I head inside to the store. Once inside, I enter a decent sized room with shelves of products behind a counter that forms a u shape for 3 of the room's walls. The fourth wall is the front of the store - windows. I look at their products, and start to puzzle through some things and check out what they have. Pretty basic stuff. There are two counter ladies. The blond one addresses me in Russian asking "what" something. I say "one minute" in Russian, and she is cool with that. I browse a bit more, find what I think is bleach, smoked turkey legs, cheese, yogurt, beer, wine and bread. I point to some things, and use the PDA to translate for me on bleach. She points to the bottle I had thot it would be. She motions something that looks like scrubbing clothes while talking, and one of the words sounds something like "disinfect" so I go with it and say "Da, da". The turkey and cheese I just point too. We have a foreigner's crippled conversation over the beer. I find the word for dark, she lights up 'o yeah', but looks and says, of all things "nada". Now what the heck is "nada" doing in Russian? Don't ask me, and I can't find anything like it in the ru-en dictionary.

So I buy some stuff that she says is not beer, but something else, but looks like beer, and everybody is buying quarts like it was beer, and it is what they've got, so I buy a quart. And I buy a bottle of Moldovan Merlot for a 100 rubles (sto rublay). Cheap cheap! I will see who has gotten the best of this bargain soon enuff. I don't do to badly, spending only about 500 rubles, about 17 $$.

On the way back I realize that I am once again lucky, and have missed the rain almost completely. I haven't seen a single stick to pick up and play sticks with, but about halfway I do find a metal bar that probably belonged to one of the trucks that come by frequently. I pick it up and decide it will be good for stick play. I take it with. My little bag - my NY courier bag style book bag, made by Globe courier bag company, is stuffed with groceries and supplies. I bought a kilo of red apples at 29 rubles for the kilo. Not bad.

I get back 5 minutes before the dining room closes for dinner, put my stuff in the fridge, and hurry down to dinner. I make it with a couple minutes to spare, and I am hungry as a Sara-hound.

After dinner I open the wine. On opening, it is a bit harsh, but after airing for a bit, it is quite palatable. A tad dry and dusty, but with nice flavor, and quite drinkable. I guess I got the bargain.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Shchuch'ye at last.

Arrived at the camp yesterday. The drive from Chelyabinsk is quite long. Chelyabinsk is dead flat. I'm told the Urals are an hour east, but this is considered by the locals to be in the Ural region. As we drive out I am reminded of nothing more than the north woods country. Large farm fields are broken by woods of poplar, birch, and evergreens. The land is flat, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, the highways stretch out straight and long. We do not actually drive through Shchuch'ye before we turn off on a road to go to the camp. We pass through the village of Chumlyak just before getting to the camp. The villages, including Chumlyak, that we have passed through are a jumble-pot of weatherbeaten wood structures. They are in various stages of repair/disrepair, some with the functional patches of corrugated tin or other "collected" material to keep them operational. The appearance is somewhat 3rd world. I don't get the impression of hard poverty that I've seen in the third world though. This is more like an arrested development - as though the village was frozen into economic times of 50 or 100 years ago. Some of the houses are obviously better off, well and prettily painted. So you have a complete economic range - but not to the standards I'm used to.

So far, this is pretty much what I read would be found here. I see the occasional newer building - a concrete block "cafe" for one. As we pass the turnoff to Shchuch'ye, we can see a couple of multistory apartment-type buildings, maybe 4, perhaps 5 stories in height. These are being constructed as housing for the construction crews. We pass a new 2 or 3 story school constructed for the village by my company. The primitiveness of the villages is a little disappointing. I see more shacky-town structures than I would like to.

On the other hand, I also see enterprising citizens selling some small amounts of produce and stuff on the side of the main road. This is a good sign.

At the camp the folks are very pleasant and social. My room is just what I expected - a dormitory type single occupancy. Essentially the size of a decent hotel room with cabinetry and furniture designed for living there longer than one night. Cupboards, closet space, desk area, mini-fridge, etc. The bed is fine - mattress on a flat surface support. I've had a similar setup at most of the places I've stayed here - instead of a box-spring American style, the mattress sits on a solid wooden platform. The bed frame is otherwise similar in appearance to bed frames we are used to. I love it - I like my bed firm, and I've been convinced for years that firm beds are better for you, so I'm happy on this score. It is great to unpack as though I'm going to stay for a while. I'm a bit bored of living out of my suitcase.

I don't have the promised internet connection. I am upset with this. There is an internet room as a makeshift measure, but this will not do. They had a sattelite connection, I'm told, but had technical problems - so they are waiting for optic cable installation, perhaps in October. Phuh.

The food in the cafeteria is quite good. It may well represent a problem with getting my weight down. On the other hand, you can't take food out of the cafeteria. You can't cook in your room (not that I had expected to). They have a little store, but all I see are quick-stop store junk offerings. They provide box lunches for the office, but they are box lunches. Gag me, one piece of fruit, some cold cuts, some offerings of bread.

However, it is quite apparent to me that some things will not fly. The fruit is one example. I am going to have to find a way to buy fresh fruit. They have regular rides into Chelyabinsk, but I'm not about to spend all day once a week just to go shopping for the week. The driver speaks less English than the drivers in Moscow, so asking for anything different is not part of the equation there. Can't just make a quick stop somewhere. I'll need some fresh bread, yogurt, and other stuff.

The camp is offering Russian language classes. Marvelous. I'll do that.

I take the day and do mostly nothing - and enjoy it.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Toilet paper

Toilet paper

I have failed to mention this, but this is a funny one. For those of you who are attached to your super-soft American toilet paper, don't come to Russia. I have seen nothing but a hard paper version, similar to once could be found in public restrooms. (Ahem) Tough stuff. Now, the nice part of this is that I don't like American toilet tissue any more. It is now so soft that it is fragile, and tears when I try to use it. Blow your nose? Phew, goes right through. In Warsaw the hotel has a product that is a little nicer version of the hard paper common in Russia. A better compromise between soft (and useless), and hard (and harsh).

Observations on Warsaw

I finally made it somewhere. Once again, the unexpected has cropped up in my every move. I have just been the 'lucky' one with all this. I'm quite tired of the excitement, strangeness, and hassle.

Thursday night I met the other American who flew over for the same visa renewal and we go to the "Old town" to walk and have dinner. This is different from Russia, for sure. The people are different, the weather is different, the culture is different, the clothes are different. Of course weather is just that, and changes all the time - and has changed from Moscow to here. Moscow was still pretty warm - and finally looked to get some showers to clean things up. Here it is cool - jacket weather, and definitely showering. The umbrella is the thing - and I put on a t-shirt under my dress shirt, as my jacket is packed in my bike bag and unreachable! The air is very fall-like.

We swap observations while walking, and eventually find a spot that seems attractive enough to both of us. It's a bit hard, as it often seems to be among expats going for dinner. Nobody wants to quite say "This is the spot". A number of reasons for that I suppose. Part of it is a lack of hunger - we just aren't that hungry. Part of it is the unknown factor for the restaurants - which ones are any good, and which will we enjoy. Part of it is a desire to get along and defer the choice to someone else - trying to get a feel for the other person. So deciding on a dinner restaurant can take a little longer than usual.

He has been to Germany before, so has some interesting views of Warsaw. It is also his first time to Warsaw. He sees a similarity here to both places - Germany and Russia. He has spent no time in Moscow, though, so his Russian viewpoint is different from mine. Very soon we will start Chapter two of my Russian adventure - "Away from Moscow". The other American's view of the economy is different from my view from Moscow. This fits with what I've heard from the locals - things are different in the country - and most of Russia is "in the country". Moscow is different, but I hope not too different.

Back to Warsaw, though. We are hoteled on something akin to an "Embassy Row", close to "Old town". The latter is a major tourist attraction. They rebuilt major parts of the old town that was destroyed in WW2, trying to maintain the same flavor. Shades of Memphis, Santa Fe, and Seattle. My viewpoint is colored because I'm in a "good" section of town, but there are still some general observations I can make. My American friend feels more comfortable here - he says it is more like home (States). I think in some ways he is right, but in some ways it is less like the States to me. I feel more different here than in Moscow. Fewer people I deal with speak English, even though I find more of the general populace that speaks English. More speak German. The clothing styles are more different from Americans, and I stand out more - even dressed as innocously as I am, in white button-down shirt and chinos. However, as for Warsaw, I feel like I stand out more as a tourist here than I do dressed the same way in Russia. The locals pick me out more readily, and I can pick out differences in ways local males dress themselves from Americans.

Now (chuckle, chuckle) this would be quite the opposite for American women. They stand out like a sore thumb in Russia, but you would be gambling to pick them out here. This is because the Russian women do have a general style of dressing which is both specific and different from other countries. More high heels, fewer flats, tight shirts or tops that reveal a little midriff, low-waisted pants (hip-huggers), and tighter skirts are the norm here. American women dress in much more masculine styles. Women from other EU countries fall in various other middle grounds. The one thing that is almost always true tho, is that a woman with the midriff revealing tight top and heels will be Russian. I've seen few tourist women adopting these styles.

I've also seen no tourists wearing the pointy Italian shoes for either sex. Some Italian tourists are an exception here, but no tourists seem to wear the pointy shoes. The toes on these shoe may be so long they curl up, like a picture of an 1840's dandy in the US, where at one time young men would sit with the toes of their shoes jammed against a wall so as to make the toes of the shoe curl upward permanently.

Automobiles too, are more a commonality than a difference. The market here is again international. The models are slightly different, and some of the automobile choices are a little different, but more are the same than not, except for the absence of monster SUVs and pickups. Thank you very much.

But, some things are also now apparent. I have been observing this in Moscow, but now it is quite apparent that clothing and styles are now international. Clothing and styles of dressing are far less useful as giveaway details than they were 20 years ago. It is obvious that the same factory is making shirts for Columbia in the States as well as somebody else in Russia. Getting around Warsaw, this is obvious. Local in-country clothing manufacturing is a thing of the past - except for high end stuff, which is also international. I see some difference in styles of dressing, but not so much as I would have seen 20 years ago. In Moscow, it is so universal and international that it is difficult to tell the French and British tourists from the American tourists or the local populace.

Warsaw is only 2 million people, smaller than Moscow by a good margin. Yet the traffic is much heavier, and the automobile infrastructure much more developed. The pollution strikes me as being more prevalent as well. I can taste it in the air, even tho the weather is rainy and windy. Such weather should be clearing the pollution. I am sure it is, but if my tongue and my nose are a measure, the pollution is worse here than Moscow. That may well not be true in a few years, with the rate at which Moscow is growing.

I see street marketers here - just like in Moscow and like I remember in London. The stores and businesses appear healthy, and quite a bit more mature than in Moscow. Perhaps 5 years, or 15 years ahead of where Moscow will be.

In both places it is hard to believe how much has changed since the times of the communists. In so many ways it is almost as it that was just a dream or a nightmare of the past. As a matter of fact, this may present a difficulty in the future for the Russian Federation, as there has been no self-analyzing or self-chastisement such as occured for Germany after WW2. This means that the Communist past may well be remembered more and more romantically by the Russian population. Since at least the Muscovites are operating in what seems to me to be something of a "wild west" atmosphere - where the law has limited impact - this could lead to a politically restrictive change. Actually, I am sure that the law will become more restricted, and this can be good, but it also might not be. It is very dependent on how it all comes about. The wide-openness of the marketplaces is a good thing. The wide-openness of the range of public behavior is not. Many people are upset over incidents of what looks to me like hooliganism. There is also bad feeling about various different ethnic groups coming in and working. If the markets or particular ethnic groups get restricted, this will lead to a
future with a smaller and less successful economy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Finally going somewhere

Between one thing and another my plans changed about five times in the last week or so. The decision was made to go to Warsaw for visa renewal before going to the site.

I've managed to spend the morning packing the clock. Found a computer box big enough, cut the styro to fit, and packed it all in well.