Friday, 9 September 2011

24 Hours in Moscow

I arrived in Moscow on Wednesday at about 8:30pm, and was met by someone from work who drove me to my apartment – so far so easy. I’d found a room through the wonders of couchsurfing, with a couple called Yasna and Maxim. Yasna is from Vladivostok and works as a translator, and Maxim is from Odessa, in Ukraine, and works as a web developer. Their roommate is travelling, so I’m subletting his room for September and October. Before meeting them I was obviously worried – you get a lot of information on a couchsurfing profile, and the references are especially useful, but agreeing to live with total strangers for two months is generally a bit daunting! But they were incredibly welcoming, and put me at ease straight away, as did my third flatmate, Lyena (an Osteopath from Ekaterinburg).

Yasna had told me that the apartment was ‘Stalin era’, which sounds ominous but which is apparently a Good Thing. Stalin era apartments tend to have thick walls (so you can’t hear your neighbours at night) and high ceilings, with large living areas. Khrushchev-era apartments, on the other hand, tend to be smaller, with lower ceilings and thin walls, and the buildings tend to be uglier. Modern apartments are a bit shiny, but basically similar to Khrushchev ones. So far so good, and the apartment, when I saw it, was better than I could have hoped – huge living spaces and nice bathrooms, and on the 12th floor with beautiful views over the city. Somehow, I seem to have landed on my feet.

Sadly though, there are always challenges, and so far the doors seem to be my nemesis. Getting in on the first night proved impossible, and the driver had to work out how to work the code. The next morning, when I left to go to work, I couldn’t find the button to get out and in the end just skulked in the hallway until someone else left. I then faced a new challenge: procuring money. On Yasna’s advice, I had decided to buy a three month metro pass, which required cash. I found a cashpoint no problem (at the bank near the metro), but it didn’t like being asked to speak English, and gobbled my card. Luckily, work were picking me up today, so I didn’t need to worry, but I was a bit concerned about how I would feed myself over the coming months.

A quick pep talk later, I headed back to the apartment to wait for my ride and figure out my next move (3 attempts at the door, all unsuccessful – eventually I tailgated someone going in). Happily, a solution was at hand. Apparently, machines eating cards is a common occurrence in Russia, and rather than waiting for the bank to send you a new card, you simply go to the bank, who open up the machine for you and give you your card back (Aside: anyone know how they do that? Can't help thinking that the high incidence of card eating might be related to the tendency to jemmy with the machine until it gives up the card). Obviously this wasn’t something I was going to attempt alone, but when Jemma arrived to collect me (I couldn't find the button to get out, and in the end asked Yasna to come and show me where it was... apparently it was right in front of me all along), we took ourselves to the bank where, on presentation of my passport, I was reunited with my card.

We then drove to the office, where I spent the day battling to be able to save things on the server, open calendars, and other such exciting tasks. At lunch, my colleague Sergey took me first to a bank (success! I have money!) and then to what turned out to be an English pub that does good lunch deals. To my delight, it serves London Pride, HoneyDew, and Aspell’s Cider! Suddenly, I feel at home, and all is well with the world!

In the evening, it was time to attempt the subway. Armed with a map, I headed first to the kiosk to buy my pass. Clearly there was no way I would be able to communicate what I wanted, so Yasna had written what I wanted for me on a piece of paper to give to the ticket lady. I handed it over with a 5000 ruble note and what I hoped was a winning smile. Looking perplexed, she took the note, but confusion soon turned to laughter and I was soon tripping on my way with the desired pass in my pocket. My Cyrillic might be pretty dodgy, but it was good enough to work out where to change lines and follow the signs for my line, and before I knew it I was triumphantly home.

And this time, I even managed to work the door.


Here’s what I wrote in Chad... apologies for the delays in posting, holidays (should eventually be recorded in the other blog) and moving to Moscow (on which more later) got in the way of internetting.

After nearly two weeks in Chad I really ought to have some impressions, but somehow they seem lacking. I think part of the problem is that I’m comparing N’Djamena to other African cities, which isn’t entirely helpful to those who haven’t spent silly amounts of time in Africa. I haven’t been to the town centre (apparently there’s a market, which is worth a visit on Saturdays, but I was working on Saturday). It’s Ramadan, which makes the whole city seem dead during the day. And as if all that wasn’t enough, I’m biased against the country because the water supply and the generator at the guesthouse were broken for most of the time I was there. So I’m trying to avoid being unduly harsh.

That said, there are obviously some things that stand out. The main one is the obvious poverty. With the caveat that we’re near the end of rainy season, the roads here are some of the worst I’ve seen anywhere, with a veritable lake of mud between the guesthouse and the office, and the roads completely impassable without a four wheel drive – even in the capital city. Wierdly though, despite the mud everywhere, it manages to be dusty. The office is swept twice a day, and each time huge piles of mud gather to be swept out onto the balcony. With all this humidity and rain in the air, I wonder where it’s coming from.

I think what I find most depressing though, is that I can't see much sign of growth. Burundi was horribly poor, but there was building going on everywhere and it looked like somewhere that was reconstructing itself. Maybe it's just because it's Ramadan and the rainy season, but I really couldn't see much of that in Chad.

On Friday night we head out for drinks, so I get to see a little of the N’Djamena expat scene. The people I meet seem nice enough – mostly French, with a liberal sprinkling of Italians. I’m surprised to see a large group of men, with over-muscled shoulders and shaved heads – turns out there’s a massive French base here, just as there is in Cote d’Ivoire – cue some recycled humour about how the French have never quite got round to leaving Africa. Cynicism notwithstanding, the bar is fun with good music, and I’m forced to admit that Chad isn’t all bad, though Chirac, the Finance Manager, and I take no time to impress on everyone the clear superiority of the Great Lakes Region to the Sahel.

My cynicism returns though, later in the evening, when the prostitutes start arriving. I know whenever you go to an expat bar in Africa they’re there, but somehow it seemed more blatant here. Maybe because the only Chadian women in the bar seemed to be prostitutes, or maybe just because I’m not used to it right now so I notice them more. The toilets were near the entrance to the bar, so while I was waiting I watched them getting ready to go in – arranging hair, putting on makeup, arranging themselves in their bras, and taking off their comfy flipflops to put on heels. Don’t get me wrong – there was smiling and laughter, and I realise these women probably make a lot more money than they could any other way. But it was still one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Sunday, the only things to do in N’Djamena are hang out at home, and go to the pool. Since there isn’t much space to hang out in the house, once I finished my report, I headed to the pool. After days of doing nothing but be driven between the office and the house, I felt like I’d practically lost the use of my legs, so the extortionate entrance fee was more than worth it, and I have to admit it was a nice atmosphere – the sun was out, so lying by the pool reading a book was a pretty good way to unwind, and a nice long swim did me no end of good. And I met some nice French people, who invited me back to theirs to drink wine and eat cheese in the form of the ripest camembert I’ve ever tasted – definitely not what I expected to be doing in Chad! We then headed on to a party at the WFP house, where I met some Burundians who knew some of my Burundian friends from two years ago (the world of African expats is a pretty small one). Suffice it to say that by the end of the evening I was pretty tired for a Sunday night, but all in all considerably mellowed towards Chad.

So would I go back? It wasn’t hideous, and the social scene would be fine for a few months, and I think outside of Ramadan there’d be a bit more energy about the place. But the dust and the heat would get to me, and so would the restricted social circle, and so would the fact that there’s literally nothing to see in the country outside of N’Djamena, so no chance for exploring. So while I would probably go back for a short time, it’s definitely not somewhere I see myself spending long amounts of time.