Posted tagged ‘train travel’

“You don’t need magic to disappear, all you need is a destination and a great hostel!”

July 21, 2016

Yesterday was the perfect day: sunny, warm and dry. A breeze from the south kept my house cool. It will be warmer today, but this room, in the back of the house, is still dark and cool. I’m going to be out on the deck today with a good book and a cold drink. My outside table is perfectly shaded by branches from the scrub oak. Gracie lies in the shade at the right angle formed by two sides of the deck. She sleeps deeply and sometimes even snores.

When I was teaching, I was usually traveling in July and August. I was one of those backpackers who slept in hostels, on overnight buses and sometimes in parks. I bought bread, peanut butter and jam and ate sandwiches to save money. Sometimes I bought a cooked chicken and tomatoes for a fancy dinner sandwich. I had a Go Europe guidebook which listed free food at happy hours. I’d nurse a drink and eat my fill. Overnight train travel was my favorite route between two places. Sometimes I’d just buy a seat and try to get comfortable enough to sleep, but a couple of times I bought a couchette and was able to stretch out on a mattress and sleep.

Traveling in Europe was a huge adventure for me. I got to see all the places I’d only read or dreamed about. One summer it was five weeks in England, Scotland and Ireland. Another summer it was six weeks traveling in Finland, Russia, Denmark, The Netherlands and England. The big trip was eight weeks in South America. I landed in Caracas and left from Rio. In between, I traveled from country to country by bus, car and planes. The best plane ride was over the Andes from Lima to Cusco. I saw the shadow of my plane on the mountain tops covered in snow. In those days few Americans traveled in South America. We met only one other in Paraguay who asked to join us at an outdoor cafe. He had heard us speaking English. He was the head of Pan American Airlines in South America and was on his farewell tour of Pan Am offices before his retirement. He told some great stories including one about Eisenhower visiting South American and having to extend runways for his plane. I think that trip was my all-time favorite.

Eight weeks from now I’ll be in Ghana.

“[Leningrad] sits astride the Neva, frozen in time, a haunting mélange of pale hues, glorious façades and teeming ghosts.”

April 28, 2013

Today is another sunny but chilly day. Last night was downright cold. I would never guess we are so close to the beginning of May without a calendar in front of me. Fern has the right idea: stay inside nice and warm and stretch in the sun on the floor. My breakfast place filled quickly and many were golfers. Four men in polo shirts in a single booth were a dead giveaway. I guess I’ll take that as one sign of spring.

The saga continues.

We arrived in Leningrad and went to the hotel where we were to meet the rest of the tour group which had flown in from  Copenhagen. We went to the desk to check in. The woman at the counter wanted our passports. I was okay with that until she said she’d have to keep them while we stayed there. I panicked. Too many movies had me thinking I’d be stopped by the KGB who’d want identification, and I would have none. They’d haul me off to prison and I’d be gone for ever. My family would call the embassy, but the Russians would deny any knowledge of my whereabouts. I said no, an emphatic no. She then said I couldn’t check in at any hotel. I folded quickly. I wanted a bed.

The first guide we had was wonderful. She was friendly, knowledgeable and courteous. My tour group was multi-national: 4 Americans, a couple from Italy who didn’t speak English, some Argentinians, a couple of guys from France and a couple more from England. We dutifully followed Natasha (I know, really?) from sight to sight. We saw the winter palace of the Tsar, the Peter and Paul Fortress and cathedral, the Hermitage ( one of my favorite places), Peterhof and we also took a ride down the Neva River. We were told no one in Russia is ever unemployed. That made sense when you saw that each room in the Hermitage had its own woman sitting in a chair keeping an eye on everything while other women sat in other chairs at the bottom of escalators in the metro. I have no idea what they were supposed to do. We noticed no one ever smiled. Once we bought an ice cream and a woman smiled at us, and the guy from Argentina said she must be a foreigner.

My friend and I and one other American were supposed to go to Tbilisi, but we were told that trip had been cancelled, and we were going to Kalinin instead. We were furious but stuck. At the tour office, we complained and also wanted a refund as the other trip had been more expensive. We were told they knew about us in Moscow. I replied that the tsar knew about the Bolsheviks and look what happened anyway.

The good guide left us at the train station in Leningrad, and the worst guide ever took us over for the rest of the trip. We rode the train together to Kalinin. At one point I asked the guide what river we were passing, and she said she didn’t know. The Frenchman said there were trains in France like the one we were on but they were in museums. The tour group had become quite irreverent.

Kalinin was sheer misery. The two tour stops were a printing plant and a dentistry school. At the plant we watched machines print. That was it. We were given literature about Lenin as souvenirs when we were leaving: just what we all wanted. At the dentistry school we walked  through rooms filled with chairs which had people sitting in them with their mouths opened while their teeth were being fixed. It is number one as the worst tour stop ever, including every trip I’ve ever taken. The one good think about Kalinin was it is on the Volga River. We walked along it and hummed the Volga Boatman.

Next, we took the train to Moscow. When we got off the train, we saw that whole city was filled with thick smoke. We asked the guide why there was so much smoke. She said there was none.