For a moment I feel some hesitation as I step onto the train in Helsinki that is bound for St. Petersburg, Russia.
Going to Russia has the sense for an American that I am heading into the forbidden land. Russia, twice the size of the United States and half the population, holds an air of the mystic and of unpredictability.
With the 1980s Reagan era smack in the middle of my life, years of propaganda with end of the world nuclear war images still swirl around in the dark corners of my memory.
Communists and Satan were pretty much interchangeable words.
I could hear past conversations with people spinning in my head: "Why do you want to go to Russia?"
Of all the countries in my lifetime, it seems to me Russia has had the largest effect on the American physic. I find myself curious about how I will be treated as an American.
As the train wheels start to roll on the eight-hour ride toward St. Petersburg, I realize there’s no turning back.
The train attendant, called a provodnitsa, collects the passports and tickets. Next she hands out immigration and custom forms. I offer her a piece of candy from a plastic bag, she peers in, smiles and says, "Thank you." This is a person I want to be on my side, and kindness always helps.
The train appears to be filled with wealthy Russians who spent the weekend shopping in Helsinki. Most are decked out in very nice clothes, chatting on cell phones or listening to iPods.
"Is it is necessary to fill out my camera and laptop computer information on the customs declaration form?" The attendant scrunches up her nose and shakes her head no.
I’ve been told getting in and out of Russia would be the trickiest part to exploring this vast country. Additionally there is the confusion surrounding the registration process if you are in one place longer than three days. But this doesn’t include weekends, holidays or when the moon is hanging half way over the horizon. Everyone you talk to has a different explanation. In the background of my mind are the horror stories that permeate the traveler’s grapevine of people trying to leave the country but who are missing paperwork. Stories of people who end of being detained at the border and levied huge fines.
After two hours my passport comes back, and we cross the border from Finland into Russia. Immigration comes through the train, stamps me out of one country and then I am officially stamped into Russia.
The Russian immigration officer tears the form down the perforated line and says: "Don’t lose this."
Late in the evening my train arrives in St. Petersburg. Looking in the guidebook, I see the hostel is close to the train station. Disembarking from the train I set off to find a bed for the night.
Walking at 10 at night in poorly lighted streets, I follow streets according to the map. Only one problem, the hostel isn’t where the map indicates. After an hour of walking back and forth a man dressed in business attire appears.
"Do you speak English?"
"Yes, a little."
Pointing to a piece of paper, I say; "I’m looking for this address."
"You will need to take the subway or taxi to that place. You’re not at the downtown station. You arrived at a different train station.
"My name is Alec. Where did you come from?"
"Helsinki, but I’m from America."
"I’m going to call my wife and let her know that I am going to help you find a taxi and take you to the hostel myself.
"You should be careful walking around here, this isn’t Helsinki."