Sunday, February 1, 2015

Memories of Our Trip to Russia

If you have not already, you will want to stop here and read the first post about Russia called Falling in Love with Sydney That post led to this one when people asked to hear more about our trip to Russia. This newer post is not so much about Sydney, but the details of our travel. 

While we were in Russia we were often at “the mercy” of complete strangers that the adoption agency had hired as interpreters for us. The interpreters knew all the ins and outs of the adoption process. They helped couple after couple through the process. Most of them spoke English very well and many of them had been to the states before. The whole adoption process had been sort of stream lined it seemed to us. We would go to one office, get the proper stamps and signatures, then take all of those papers to another office in a different building and exchange those papers for other papers with different stamps and signatures. We met some very interesting people and just like Americans, they came in all different shapes and sizes and all different personalities and attitudes. One of the drivers we had was a very tall, muscular man who could toss our large suitcases around like they were small toys. He drove very aggressively and was both gentle and intimidating at the same time. Once, we told our interpreter we needed to find a place to exchange some currency. The interpreter and the driver spoke back and forth in Russian. The driver did not want to take us to the places we had traded money before. Our interpreter said, “We go to the black market.” He “knew a guy” and we drove to a large roundabout with traffic flowing all around us. We saw a man standing on the edge of the median, shifting his weight from right foot to left. It was very cold out and the man had to be freezing. We pulled up and two tires of the car went up onto the curb. Our driver took our money and rolled down the window. He handed the man on the curb our money. The man pulled out a roll of bills so large they barely fit in his hand. He very quickly counted out the bills we needed. Our driver handed us our money and we were off. The whole transaction took only a couple of minutes. Shawn and I must have looked like we were in shock for quite a while after that.  

I believe it was on our first trip when the phone rang in the middle of the night. Shawn answered and it was a woman asking for John. Shawn explained he was not John. The woman said she was in the lobby and wanted to come up to his room. He hung up the phone and we figured it was probably a prostitute. We had been warned about them and thought we had picked a few out of the crowd while we were there. More than once I believe I uttered the phrase, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

That first trip, between visits with Sydney, we had a lot of time on our hands. The town the orphanage was in was called a village but was really not very small. We walked around some and found some interesting things to see. There was a fairly large building where people were selling their produce. There was a lot of raw meat lying in the open on tables with no refrigeration. Dogs were wandering around in the building and the smell was pretty strong. I have never been so thankful for the grocery stores in the USA as I was when I saw that market place. Americans are blessed beyond measure.

Our hotel in Moscow
On our first trip to Russia we met a couple on the flight to Moscow. They were on their second trip and were there to finish their adoption. Our paths crossed again on our last night in Moscow. They had their sweet baby girl with them. She was about two and a half and so precious. She seemed very comfortable and well adjusted for having only been with them a few days. She had on a corduroy dress and tights. She was sitting in an umbrella stroller and her parents were sitting across from us on a couch in the lobby of the hotel. The hotel we stayed at in Moscow was a very ornate and beautiful place. There were guards, large men in black suits, standing in the lobby examining everyone who entered or exited through the large area. Their faces were always expressionless but their eyes were continuously scanning. They made me feel safe and anxious at the same time. As we were visiting with our new friends Shawn noticed the toddler grinning and “flirting” with someone behind us. He turned to see one of those tough, no-nonsense guards with a huge goofy smile on his face. The guard had been watching that adorable little girl instead of the adults who were coming and going and his fearless threatening demeanor had disappeared as that sweet youngster beguiled him.

On our second trip to Russia, we left our kids at home sick. One had pneumonia, and the others were coughing. A couple of days after we got to Russia, we began to cough. I was coughing more than Shawn was and he was sure I was coming down with pneumonia. I insisted I did not need a doctor but Shawn was so worried about me he asked at the hotel desk about a doctor. They had a doctor in the hotel! She came right to our room. He had a stethoscope and listened to my lungs. She only knew a little English but after she listened to me a minute she announced, “No Pooh Moan EEYA” and she was gone. It was a strange encounter for sure.

In Moscow we saw many things we were curious about. We noticed that there were often men in uniform standing on the side of the busy street that ran parallel to our hotel. They had sticks or flashlights. They would point at a driver and wave them over to the side of the road. The driver would pull over and show the officer some paperwork and then be allowed to continue upon their way. Shawn noticed that the cars pulled over were usually Humvees and the drivers were usually dark-skinned. We saw other people in Moscow occasionally who were questioned by police officers.

We had been told that it would be best if we did not go anywhere without one of our interpreters, especially in a cab. So, we spent a lot of time in our hotel. Occasionally we met other Americans, some with a child they were ready to take back to the states and some waiting to meet their potential child. We ate most of our meals in the hotel. Meals in the morning were not the same kind of foods we would consider breakfast foods here in the states. There was a buffet of cold cuts and hard breads each morning. We usually skipped lunch to sleep. We never adjusted to the nights and days either trip. We were awake all night and exhausted during the day so we napped all afternoon if we were able.

The Golden Arches
Just a few blocks from our hotel in Moscow was a McDonalds and we walked there two or three times. Ketchup was on the menu. If you wanted it, you had to order it. There was a Hard Rock Café much further from the hotel and we walked there once. They spoke English at the Hard Rock and I felt right at home there.

Matryoshka Dolls from Russia
When we were in Moscow the first trip, we got brave enough to walk down to a very famous area called Old Arbat Street. It was not far from our hotel. It was closed off to traffic and it was an open market. If you’ve ever seen the old Disney move “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and you can remember Portobello Road, then you can sort of picture Old Arbat Street. I could have spent days wandering around. It was amazing. I was interested in looking at things we could take home as souvenirs for the kids. I would never have believed how many different kinds of Russian nesting dolls there are. I wanted to fill my suitcase with them. We were able to buy the kids chocolate kinder eggs with tiny building sets inside and some other neat things. Venders were aggressive and they were all vying for our business. Many of them spoke English. On Old Arbat there were street performers and we even saw a strange group that was like pictures we had seen of the bald Hare Krishna cult members.

One day and night we stayed in an apartment on New Arbat Street, high above a busy area in Moscow. New Arbat is nothing like Old Arbat. New Arbat reminded me of Time Square in New York City. It was all lit up and new. The crowds were very different. We were able to see down onto the busy street and watch police officers on horseback. They would occasionally ask someone to show them some documentation. We were never stopped and asked but we always had our passports with us. Each time we stayed somewhere we had to have our passports stamped by the hotel. It was to show that we had stayed where the government had been told we were going to stay when we entered the country. Our interpreter told us the stamp was very important to get on our passports.

Both trips to Russia were ten days in length. When Sunday came around the first trip, Shawn and I had a worship service in our hotel room. Between our trips to Russia Shawn had done some looking online and found a congregation of the Lord’s Church in Moscow. He had an address when we returned. I was too sick to go, the weather was bitter, and Sydney was with us, but Shawn was determined to find a worship service. He hailed a cab in front of our hotel with the help of the hotel doorman. The cab took him to the address Shawn had. It was a building where a small group of Christians were meeting. They were so friendly and happy to have him, as any group of Christians would be. The service was in Russian but a young woman sat next to Shawn and interpreted for him. He found out that she had actually visited Kansas before. At the end of the service, the minister returned Shawn to the hotel. It is an experience he will never forget and although I was anxious about him being without one of the adoption agency’s interpreters, he was not afraid. I am so glad he has that memory.  

Before Sydney could leave Russia she had to be examined by a doctor approved by the embassy. He found that Sydney had an ear infection. He wrote down the name of an antibiotic and our interpreter took us to a pharmacy. We were able to get the medicine easily but no prescription had been necessary. Our interpreter explained that there was no need for a prescription for antibiotics there. All we needed was the name of the medicine we wanted to buy and the money to buy it. We later returned there and got some cough medicine because Shawn and I were both coughing. It did nothing for our cough. It was worthless.

The train ride from the Moscow to the orphanage (and visa versa) was probably the worst part of our Russian experience. It was a night train that took ten hours. We were not sleeping at night because our days and nights were flipped. We stayed awake, uncomfortable, the train lurching side to side, and we watched the clock. There was nothing to see. The train stopped often. We avoided the ten-hour train ride once. On the second trip we flew into St. Petersburg instead of Moscow and only had to ride the train for six hours instead of ten. The agency did not seem to appreciate that we asked them to do things differently though. Although our hotel accommodations were always nice and there was never a glitch when we were to meet an interpreter or anyone else, when it came to that train ride, our convenience was not their priority. We really hated that train.

I do have one funny story about the train. The doors to the sleeper cars slid open like a closet door. The bathroom facilities were similar to that of an airplane. It was tight quarters. We are pretty sure that the waste from the toilet and sink flushed right onto the track below us, although we could not prove it. One night on the train Shawn returned from a bathroom break and he was in a real hurry to get back into our room. He had accidently slid the door open to the room next to ours. He walked right in on a large snoring Russian man. The light from the hall shone right onto the man’s face but he did not wake. Knowing he could not make excuses in the native tongue, Shawn hoped no one was going to follow him and demand an explanation. We still laugh when we recall that incident.

The view from our hotel window in the village where Sydney was born was of apartment buildings. We also saw apartment buildings when we drove from one location to another. They were nothing like I am used to seeing where I live, although I am sure there are areas in the USA that are similar. The windows usually had plywood over them. The balconies were boarded up. There was no color and everything looked old, depressed, and dirty. On the other hand, the people we saw were usually dressed very nicely and were stylish, especially in the cities. Everyone seemed to have a cellphone too, just like we do in America. The people we encountered were almost always friendly and polite.

Almost all our experiences were good ones while we were in Russia… if you do not get me started about that train ride. HA. However, I do have one story to tell that I hate to remember. We were expected to give gifts and tips to everyone who helped us with anything at all. The adoption agency staff in the states suggested we take things from here with us that we could give as gifts. They suggested playing cards, hats, or bandanas with the American flag on them, calendars with scenery from America, or candy. We did as they suggested but the people who helped us in the offices with paperwork or in the orphanage did not seem interested in those things at all. We gave our drivers and interpreters tips of cash several times and they were appreciative. One of our interpreters insisted that we needed to give Sydney’s doctor liquor as a gift. Shawn said that we would not be giving anyone liquor. The first time we visited the doctor, we gave him one of the gifts we had brought with us and the interpreter handed him a bottle of liquor from his bag. When we left, Shawn told our interpreter that it had better not happen again. Shawn was very irritated at the interpreter for not respecting our wishes. I was of the opinion that the liquor did not come from us so it really did not matter that much and I did not want to sour our “deal” with the agency but Shawn did the right thing. He did not want our name or our arrangement to have anything to do with alcohol. Ironically enough, in the end, it had everything to do with alcohol, right down to the baby’s birth mother. In Russia, every store we entered seemed to have shelves and shelves of alcohol and small sections of merchandise or food. As much as I hate to see alcohol in my local grocery store in America, I am thankful that it is not nearly as permeating as we saw in Russia.

One of the last things we had to do in Moscow before we went home was to take Sydney to the American Embassy and get her visa. It was an amazing experience. Our interpreter was not allowed to enter the building at all because he was not an American citizen. He left us at the door with our huge manila envelope of paperwork and gave us instructions. We found the room we needed and could not believe our eyes. There were at least thirty other American couples there for the same reason we were. Some had more than one child with them. The stream of people coming through never slowed. We were there for about one hour. I remember thinking maybe there was only one day a week for this particular step to be done. Surely this many babies were not adopted hourly, every day, all week long. When I asked I was told that it was that way all day long, every day. Less than twenty four hours later, we were on a plane with a lot of those same people. All those babies that were once in orphanages are in homes now. I am so glad so many were able to find homes before the ban on adoptions to the United States.

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