We slipped out of the museum, heads down so that our tour group wouldn’t notice us. We looked around surreptitiously hoping that no police were watching us. Not that they would necessarily know we were guilty of wrongdoing mind you, but we couldn’t take a chance. As we made our way backwards through the entrance line, I felt an exhilarating surge through my body… It was the same feeling you have when you jump out of a plane and you realize that you can’t reverse that final step. I took one more backward glance to be certain we were not being chased down by anyone important and we started to laugh. We’d done it! We were in Russia without a visa! We were on our own!
20 something years ago, I had been a poor backpacker traveling through Africa with 6 months on my hands and a very flexible itinerary. My traveling companion, Helen and i had finally hit a diplomatic wall at the border of Tunisia and Libya and were not sure how we were going to get to Nairobi. At the time there were no Internet cafes. They hadn’t been invented yet…. The Middle Ages of traveling. One had to actually walk to airline offices and ask questions in person; barbaric but true. Through the traveling grapevine we had heard rumors about a cheap airline that for half the price of other airlines, offered a flight to Nairobi from Tunis. The catch? You had to go to Russia first. There was also talk of lawn chair seats and chickens in the aisles. It sounded fun to me. When you’re in your 20s, death doesn’t really seem like a possibility and who doesn’t like chickens?
As it turns out, there were no chickens, lawn chairs or furry hats on the flight for that matter. They did offer extremely cheap tickets and we found ourselves at the airport the next day.
It doesn’t take a cartographer to realize that flying from North Africa to Eastern Africa doesn’t usually include a stop in Moscow. Even stranger was that the connecting flight to Nairobi left Moscow 3 days after we arrived, so the airline included 3 nights hotel and meals for free to accompany their ridiculously priced ticket. We had been traveling with a tent and sleeping bags and now we were going to stay in a hotel? A free hotel was manna from Heaven. We couldn’t wait to enjoy our free trip to Russia.
There was only one glitch. We didn’t have a visa. We hadn’t thought about that when we booked the flight. Innocently enough before we arrived we had half expected the Russians to allow their cold war enemies to run through the streets singing the “Star Spangled Banner” and eat hamburgers in the name of democracy. Our free hotel suddenly became a free prison;The borscht bittersweet. We now had plenty of time to read “War and Peace” or something else with a few thousand pages as we sat in our hotel waiting and waiting.
The Russian hotel was divided right down the middle with a somewhat visible wall. On one side, there were incarcerated travelers, on the other, Russians. There was an oddly placed glass wall in the lobby where you could see them scurrying around doing Russian things. You couldn’t really see all of them. Just their feet. This strange wall was transparent from the floor to shin level and then became a solid wall. I suppose they placed it there to taunt us. To keep us from going insane they offered a bus trip around the city. You could get a glimpse of The Kremlin, a few statues of Putin and a lot of people with fur hats. Unfortunately there was no getting off the bus. I cursed the “RED” tape that wouldn’t allow me to walk around freely. I decided to come back so I could feel and taste and touch all the delights of which the hour bus ride had deprived me. I’d have a visa next time by golly! I’d walk where Russians walk and stand in lines like I was one of them.
25 years passed. I traveled to every continent, checked at least 125 countries off my list and one day came across a cruise that not only gave me a day in some interesting ports such as Estonia and Latvia, but also included a 2 day stop in St. Petersburg. I called my cruise specialist to book my passage only to find out the itinerary had sold out. Undaunted, I booked it for the following year. I waited patiently until the big day came.
My friend Oleg lived in Moscow and we decided to make big plans to party like Russian rock stars when I arrived. He and his wife Elena bought train tickets to St. Petersburg, they researched the best places to go, booked a hotel and were ready to show off Peter the Great’s amazing city to us.
The night before we arrived in the Russian port, our steward dropped off the little booklet that details what to expect the following day. In big letters on the itinerary were the words “Please note that you cannot enter Russia with a visa”. What? No one had said anything about a visa. Every cruise ship I’ve ever been on (and I’ve been on a LOT) always took care of visas in the port or you didn’t need one since you were getting back on the ship.
I went to the front desk to make sure there wasn’t a mistake. It turned out that the only way to get off the ship was to sign up on an overpriced tour. Unfortunately they were all booked. That meant we would be stuck in port for 2 days looking at a place we would never be able to go. We’d miss our friends that were coming to meet us. I went ballistic! The manager tried to calm me down and assured me that if I came early enough in the morning, they’d find a place for me on a tour.
I showed up the next morning with guns loaded. They knew it and found a place for us fairly quickly on a tour scheduled to visit Catherine the Great’s Palace and the Hermitage Museum. It was exciting to roll through the city and see all the incredible buildings and learn about an amazing city that we were about to walk in. The palace was crowded with tourists and we had a hard time keeping up with our group. That’s when a plan started to hatch: What if we “accidentally” lost our group? What would happen? What could they do to us? By the time we stopped for lunch, the plan was in it’s second trimester.
We sat at a table next to one of the ship’s musicians. He was kind of a laid back rocker guy who I had become friends with at the beginning of the cruise. We decided to put our plan on the table and see what our table thought. Would they cover for us? How could we get back? My friend smiled and pulled out a little card. He explained that there was a shuttle for the crew that brought them back to the ship at various times during the day. This little card was the ticket. He gave it to me and wished me luck.
We decided that it would be best to have a chat with our guide before we disappeared. She didn’t work for the ship, rather she was an independent guide in St. Petersburg, and we were hoping that she would be sympathetic to our cause. After we explained that she wouldn’t be in trouble, she agreed to help us and even called Oleg for me. Oleg was on the train and would meet us in the square at 4:00. We did our tour of the Hermitage museum and were amazed by the incredible collection there. We were nervous though. If we were caught in the country without a visa, there could be serious consequences. As the tour wrapped up, we went the opposite direction. No one noticed except the guide and the people from our table.
When we walked outside, there was no turning back. It was scary, but I felt so free! We were on the bridge and no one knew we were escapees from an American ship. No one knew who we were. We ordered a beer and waited for Oleg. Life was good. The beer was cold. We were happy.
Oleg and Elena showed up with big smiles. They had stockpiled information about where to go and we were going to do it all.The evening was fantastic. We had Georgian food at an amazing restaurant , went to the best and coolest bars, and drank as much vodka as any Russian we came across. St. Petersburg has some great places and I think we went to all of them.
The next morning we continued our sightseeing around the great city of the tsars visiting churches and boating down the Neva river. I’ve noticed that if I spend the night in a country, it becomes much more real the second day. The first day often seems like a dream. We were past the dream and having an amazing time enjoying the city. However, we were still a little concerned that our plan to get back on the ship would work. As it got later in the day, we figured we’d better head back. One problem: We weren’t 100% sure where the crew bus did pickups. Worse than that, we had no idea what the shuttle looked like. As we walked in the general area, the big square across from one of the famous churches, we spotted him! My musician friend walking straight towards us.
It was an amazing coincidence in a city the size of St. Petersburg to run into the one person who could tell us what we needed to know, but the heavens had parted and there he was! He laughed when he realized we didn’t know where we were headed and gave us specific instructions on exactly where to go. Once in the minivan, the driver asked us for our ticket. Fortunately I hadn’t lost it on the vodka trail the night before. He started up the vehicle, drove us through the checkpoints, no one questioned us since they thought we were part of the crew and within an hour we were back on the ship.
When we saw our tour companions from the previous day, they broke into a round of applause. I suppose they thought we would end up in a Russian prison or at American embassy pleading for political asylum. Somehow we’d beat the system. We’d gotten away with it and no one except a few in the know were any the wiser.
The borscht on the ship never tasted so good.