Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Moscow Experience!

In June this year I had the opportunity to visit Moscow to attend the Annual Conference of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). While I was excited about visiting a new city and a new country, I was worried because I had heard horror stories about what can happen to strangers in that city, especially after the liberalization process started 15 years ago.

Moscow is a sprawling and beautiful city retaining most of its heritage buildings and monuments. But I found the people most unfriendly and very often hostile. Let me elaborate…

My bad experience started at the Moscow airport, where I landed by an Aeroflot flight from New York minus my checked in baggage. Losing a baggage in an international flight may not be unique (thought it was my first experience in my 30 years of international travel), What I went through to find out the fate of my baggage and the efforts to get it back were not exactly a friendly introduction to a new country and a new city.

The lady at the ‘Lost Baggage’ counter literally was barking at me with her answers for every question I asked. Language problem added to my woes!

I was given a form printed in Russian to register my claim. To get the lady to help me fill the form took almost 90 minutes. I was promised that the bag will be delivered at my hotel within 24 hours. It took more than 48 hours and I was roaming around wearing the same suit attending both formal meetings and evening get togethers. Fortunately I had carried an extra set of undergarments in my hand baggage, which ensured that I was not stinking. Besides the climate at 15 degree C was quite pleasant, though in Chennai I would have said it is very cold.

The day after I checked into the hotel I went for the free buffet breakfast which most hotels the world over offer these days. I picked up a few items, mostly bread and fruits (my favourite eggs were not on display) and occupied the table assigned to me. I realized that I had forgotten to pick up the tomato ketchup. When I requested one of the floating bearers to help me, the girl literally scowled at me asking me to go fetch it myself in her broken English. I was shocked! Obviously customer service has not yet caught on in the new liberalized Russia. A similar experience followed at the formal sit down lunch which I was attending the same day.

Normally vegetarians have a raw deal in most of the international conferences. But we get away eating the bread and butter which is always there and hopefully some vegetable salads and occasionally a vegetarian soup. That afternoon there was nothing, literally nothing, but for a basket of very hard buns. I found no butter on the table. My request to get some butter to help me manage to down the buns, resulted in a procession of bearers coming and asking me what do I want and then vanishing without bringing the butter. What was appalling was the unfriendly attitude!

Fortunately the organizers of WAN conference which was a glittering affair, with over 1500 delegates from 100 countries, had ensured that the delegates were kept busy from morning to night with interesting programmes. There was hardly any time left for sight seeing and shopping – of course it would be foolish to shop in Moscow. I learnt from an Indian friend working there that everything is very expensive in Moscow. He took us to an ordinary Indian restaurant one evening, where a meal for 3 people without the spirits cost us US $ 160 which was very expensive even byuropean standards. (At this point I must give a useful tip regarding Indian restaurants in Europe – most of them offer a plate of white rice free when you order for any accompanying curry dish)

All that I could see of Moscow (apart from rows to rows of beautiful and not so beautiful old buildings on the way to the conference venue from the hotel) was the sprawling Kremlin and the Lenin tomb located inside Kremlin where the body of Lenin is lying embalmed.

We also visited the Victoria Park on our way back to Moscow airport, thanks to the car and the driver provided by my friend. We were warned by my Indian friend not to venture alone anywhere as possibilities of being mugged or even killed by the local jobless and often frustrated people, were bright. Because of this there’s always a palpable tension in the atmosphere when you are moving around the city.

On return to Chennai, at the installation function of our Rotary Club, I learnt from the incoming President’s wife that her uncle, who was a junior diplomat working in Moscow 10 years ago, was stabbed to death as he was coming out of an Indian restaurant after dinner one night.

After hearing the story I was happy that I am back in India, alive and kicking with only some bad experiences in Moscow!

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