Rain rain go away.
It makes me tired.
I was drawn into the frozen garden this morning by the promise of deep color behind. But the brilliance lasts only moments and before I could get my camera it was gone…So I only managed to capture the ordinary… Still there was enough promise for the day..
Would you vacation in Siberia? Would you? What if it you knew there would be an attempted coup that might threaten your return home to these United States of America? Well no, I wouldn’t, but yes, my mother did. And so I will take you on a journey to Magadan and Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East, during the waning days of the USSR.
It was August of 1991 and Alaska Airlines had begun flying to Russia from Anchorage, Alaska. My mother had remarried after being widowed some years before and she and her new husband decided upon this unusual vacation. (Apparently after the honeymoon in Hawaii the next logical place to go is Siberia?)
After spending a few days in Alaska, they fly west to Magadan, a port city on the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s Far East. Magadan was a major transit center during the Stalin era for prisoners sent to the Siberian labor camps. It served as a staging ground to the Kolyma gold fields, the deadliest of the camps in the Soviet Gulag.
It is still a difficult existence. Their two local Russian guides are teachers, and they earn the equivalent of eight dollars a month. Senior citizens in town are required to clean the streets to receive their pensions. Scenes from a town in disrepair reflect its painful past.
The accommodations at the Magadan hotel (the only hotel in a city of 100,000) are what you might call basic. The hotel was previously used almost exclusively by government officials.
The beds are tiny though each room does have its own private bath. (Uh-huh, see for yourself.)
No, she’s not complaining. The water was hot (at least when the pumps were working according to one local) and the experience invaluable.
They tour the town and visit the Magadan Theatre, famous for the actors, writers and directors who had worked there in the past as prisoners.
It’s a good thing they didn’t go for the food. One time they sat down to a lunch that included Russian bread the color of gold. Beautiful gold that seemed to flow. And as they watched, the gold poured out of the center of that bread in the form of tiny ants. Lots of them. (So mom, tell me again why you wanted to vacation in Siberia? Oh yeah, I remember now, because it’s there!)
On to Khabarovsk
They head south to Khabarovsk, a much larger city on the Amur River near the border with China. The people are friendly and the children beautiful, as are children everywhere. It was customary for the little girls to wear big bows in their hair.
They visit an old-fashioned theme park..
Take a cruise on the Amur River..
And stop at a Military Museum complete with Russian tanks.
But why settle for that when you can see the troops roll down the streets for yourself? They are in Khabarovsk when news arrives that hard-line Communist Party members have staged a coup to take over the Soviet government from President Mikhail Gorbachev. Things are tense as KGB officers are seen huddling in front of Military buildings and troops roll down the streets in army trucks. (Tourists were cautioned not to take pictures but as you can see some did anyway.)
And then, after two days, the failed coup was over and Gorbachev was back in power. But it was the beginning of the end of the USSR.
The Americans had been scheduled to fly back through Magadan but the city is closed and no one is getting in or out. They would have to fly directly to Nome instead, refuel, then continue on to Anchorage.
When the plane reaches its final destination it is met by TV crews and my mother is one of the first to be interviewed. Was she afraid at any time while she was there? No, she replied honestly. It had all been so interesting, there was no time to be afraid.
Years later I am going through her scrapbook to write this story and come across a handwritten letter from a friend they made while in Russia. It read in part, “Do you remember my state of mind on that terrible day – the 19th of August. All of us were greatly depressed that there existed a probability of democracy defeat in our country those days. Thank God, it never happened though we still have no surety of a better life.”
I don’t know whether they attained to a better life or not. But as I consider these words I am reminded that we are really not that different. People all over the world have the same needs and wants, aspirations and struggles, for freedom and a good and decent life. It is still true that there are no guarantees.
This is Benji and today was a good day to be a cat. First let me say I am a very good hunter. (As good or better than my older brother who seems to be losing his touch. I am not at all jealous.)
Usually I spend my time in the back ivy forest where the small ones live in the bush. It is productive most of the time as long as Sue is not around. (She is clumsy and disruptive. Tiger warned me of this.)
But today I discovered the tunnels where there is little cover, requiring that I utilize skills I did not know that I possessed. I must exercise control over every muscle to remain completely still, unseen and unheard.
I am good and I am patient.
It is only a matter of time before Sue attempts to thwart my efforts. Until then I will root out the tunnel scoundrels.
It’s a cat’s life.
And dinner in Port Townsend at sunset ..
Another day in the Pacific Northwest.
Once upon a time I visited Paris rather spontaneously which was not at all in keeping with my obsessive planning nature. And while I don’t necessarily recommend this approach (unless it is the only way you can get there) it worked for me!
It happened like this.
We were planning our first trip to Europe where my husband would be attending a conference for a few days. We would be gone for two weeks, the first to be split between Reading and London. The second would remain open. Maybe we would spend more time in England. Perhaps travel to Scotland? Of course I really wanted to see Paris (doesn’t everyone?) but my husband wasn’t so sure.
Still I hoped. Near the end of our first week there I begin to use my persuasive reasoning skills in earnest on my defenseless husband. Paris is so close, I say. Shouldn’t we take advantage while we’re here? We may never come back. And there’s Normandy! We could visit the D-Day Beaches! How about that? (Yes, I pulled the world war two card on my history buff husband, as I figure it may be my only hope for getting across the channel.)
He’s concerned about the language. Don’t worry I say. I know a little French. (A long, long time ago I had taken two years to satisfy college entrance requirements. I still remember how to say such useful expressions as, ‘May I sharpen my pencil?”)
It was October, not peak travel season, so I assumed it would be fine. There was the Eurostar train under the English Channel direct to Paris in 2 hours. Although no hotel arrangements had been made, I did have a few leads from friends. And I read and carried portions of Rick Steves travel book on France. (All part of my secret planning. How hard could it be?)
The Normandy strategy worked. We would travel to Paris by train, spend a few days, then take the train to Caen, rent a car and explore the area.
We check out of our hotel and walk to the Waterloo Station to take the Eurostar to Paris. Walk up, buy tickets. Only Business Class is available. (“That will be one arm and one leg, please.”) Okaaaay. We are committed and pay the price. (I won’t tell you how much. It’s still embarrassing.)
We have a comfortable ride over and can smell the sea as we cross under the channel.
And then the strangest thing happened. We exit the train and proceed to street level and we are in a foreign country and they really do speak another language and we really do not have reservations and what on earth are we doing here? At least that’s what I sense emanating from my husband and I am right there with him. Except. It was my idea. I know the language, remember? So after a brief encounter with a con artist who would love to help us out at the cash machine (um, no thank you) we head to hotel referral #1 near the Louvre and inquire about the rates. 500 Euros is the answer. It was then I knew we were in trouble.
Hotel referral #2 is on the Left Bank and we take a cab and learn quickly that French cab drivers are not the most patient human beings in the world (at least this one wasn’t) and also have a predetermined amount they expect for their tip and we apparently don’t know what that is (who takes a cab in Seattle?) and well, it’s awkward and slightly unpleasant. Fortunately we don’t understand what he’s saying (well we got the general idea.)
Thankfully Hotel #2 is quaint and clean and lovely and better yet, only 100 Euros a night. And they have a room available!. Oh joy!
So we relax and settle in for the most amazing few days in the beautiful City of Lights.
“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I say over and over again and every time the kind response is in English. The red bus is our way around town and we see all the sights one must see in Paris, including this one. (Sorry about the picture quality but hey, it’s mine and proof I was really there.)
And now I can finally say, “we’ll always have Paris.”
And to think this was my ticket in.
Okay, that’s all I have time for. Thanks for following along!
Oh, yes it was. I had to be up and out the door earlier this morning and was rewarded by this sunrise.