Behind the Iron Curtain - My Trip to the Soviet Union, Traveling to Sochi on the Black Sea

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890707.10
Day 8
Today, almost all of us “men” leave for Sochi, about 4 hours before any of the girls. Most of us are just laying around while the girls are at the beach (some have to do our collective study which Greg finally handed out). Lisa Van E. was either scared about being left alone or she was just fooling around. But with all the problems the girls have been having, I would be scared too. I just hope the weather in Sochi is good.

The next morning was a fast one for some of us. Upon rising that sunny morning (only the second one so far), the three of us in our room began another hurried morning. Showers were first on tap to wake us up, then we had to restore the room to a semi ordered condition and pack our bags. Breakfast was next. It was here that we were filled in on our traveling status for the day. Odessa was more-or-less a day stopover for us on our way to Sochi, a Black Sea resort. But instead of a train, it was an hour and a half flight.

The part that we didn’t like was the segregation: boys went in the morning, girls in the afternoon. This was not of our choosing either. According to KB, this was Intourist’s work. I would have loved to hear the logic behind that one. Pete made a very verbal protest to the matter before we left, when we were all grouped in the lobby with our luggage. As you may recall, several of the girls, if not all, were being harassed by the Russian men. He wasn’t trying to be chauvinistic, he was being protective. After all, he and Toni were a thing at the time. But I think that most of us guys felt the same way.

Some of us began to exchange ideas for the rationale to sending us first. One idea was that it was a dangerous place, and we were to make sure things were okay (yeah, right). Another was that a bunch of Russian men bribed officials at Intourist, but we didn’t like that one at all. Next thing we knew, we were on the bus saying goodbye to the others as we began our short journey to the airport. It seemed very odd, having the bus that empty and no girls aside from Marina.

When we got to the airport, our luggage disappeared at the hands of porters again. We often wondered what happened to our bags. We then followed Marina to the Intourist desk, where she rattled something off in Russian to the clerk. A couple of minutes later, we were whipping through what I thought was security. I couldn’t believe how laxed it was. I could have smuggled anything onto that flight if I wanted. I could have gone so far as to blow it up! Anyway, we were then taken to a lobby of sorts where the group of us grabbed any seat we wanted, no-one else was there. Here we either played cards, talked, listened to music or crashed out all together.

As I mentioned in the above paragraph, there was a small group of Jamie, John, Jason, Radar, Derek and Marina who played cards. The card game was none other than that cafeteria favorite, Asshole. It’s similar to another game that my parents call Hearts. I’ve never heard of it, but my knowledge of cards extends to crazy eights, solitaire and gambling games.

Soon, we were dragging our butts outside to walk our way out to our plane. As we exited our way out to the runway, Konrad happened to notice something a little disturbing, our luggage … with tags marked “Turkey”. Well, that’s Konrad for you.

We made the short climb into our Aeroflot plane, not much different than the one that had brought us into the Soviet Union to begin with. As in all small Soviet jets, they had very low set landing gear so boarding was not hard at all. Again, the cabin was pressurized with the aide of misty air. But this time, there was a twist to the moist air. The vents began to drip. The water wasn’t clear either, it was rusty. It doesn’t do your clothes good when it drips on them.

During our flight, Radar made an examination of my journal to date. Marina read it too. I still wonder what she thought of me when she read my crack at Aeroflot. Then he wrote the following in my journal:

Very interesting to this point. Excellent observations. I was glad to hear how much you appreciate the independent geography tour from the train window as we approached Odessa. (He would, after all, he was the Geography teacher.) I am very sorry that I did not wake you any earlier, perhaps next time.
Thanks for sharing, “Radar”.

After about an hour and a half, our plane finally began to descend into Sochi. After being stuck next to a rather large Russian man, who was the most untalkative person I had ever seen, for almost two hours, I couldn’t wait to get outside.

We had a wild pilot, a bit more off the air than our previous bus driver, Alexsi. Now Alexsi might have lost his license, but our pilot tried to parallel park the plane while landing! Our plane came to its parking spot and we unloaded as fast as we could. However, it would have been a better idea to stay inside. The outside was very muggy and extremely warm in comparison to all the other places we had already visited. Then we loaded up on a shuttle bus that whisked us over to the terminal. It was probably for the better, the tarmac was hot and the noise from all the planes was deafening. I’ll say one thing for Russian planes, they’re loud.

The heat got to us very quickly. Every one of us grabbed at least one bottle of Pepsi, the only commercially available soft drink we recognized. I myself am a Coke drinker, but the Pepsi was a welcome sight. A few minutes, we were on another bus, exactly the same as all the others we had been in so far. All of the older Intourist buses are the same, red on the outside with 45 seats inside. All recline, but only if they work. The tape decks also stink.

We then had another 45 minute trip to our hotel, all the while we were still in Sochi. The city is quite thin, less than four miles in width. But it’s 90 miles long. The airport’s at one end, the downtown core is at the other, along with our hotel. It was during the trip to our hotel that we were formally introduced to the Caucuses. It’s a very beautiful place, high mountains covered in trees with yawning abysses between them. The sea on our opposite side was dark, but inviting and the sandy beaches were almost a Godsend.

Soon, we found ourselves turning off the highway to our hotel. It sat in a shallow valley at the area one would normally see an emerging river, but there was none. Just the Zhemchuzina, our hotel. We all piled off the bus from our seats and back into the warm, sticky air. After such cool cities, it was nice to be back in the warm air. The rest of our bags, except our large luggage also came off with us.

This was easily the largest hotel we had been in to date. It was fifteen stories high (the fifteenth was an Observation Deck) and about forty to fifty rooms wide. As we entered the doors, the doorman (yes, there was a doorman) mistook us for Americans. Many Soviets did. But Jason corrected them …

“CANADIANS! Get it right! We aren’t Americans, we are Canadians dammit!” he screamed.

“Calm down Jason.” I said, pulling him along. I could imagine what the doorman was thinking: “Crazy Yankees!”

A truck pulled up not long after us. It carried our luggage from the plane. It hadn’t gone to Turkey after all. Jason and I had already turned in our passports, so we grabbed our stuff to haul up to our room. Fourteenth floor. It was elevator time! Just before we left to go upstairs, we heard someone start yelling from our group. I never found out who it was but I soon found out what they were yelling about. Much to their delight, they found out that there was a Heinekin Bar on the C level.

Ten minutes later, (I’m not kidding, the elevator took that long) we were looking out our window facing towards the north, towards the downtown core of Sochi, with a wicked view of the main door below and just to the right. Our next door neighbors turned out to be Pete and Derek. I had to admit that the next four days were going to be an interesting four days. The first of many strange incidents was to come later that night.

Sunset over the Black Sea, Sochi, 7 July 1989

But first, we had to endure dinner. We got another shock when we arrived. Something was missing: the fish. There was no fish at all. Either this was the fish’s night off or they forgot it. But we didn’t care. At least we didn’t have to eat fish! (I can’t emphasize fish enoughFISHFISHFISHFISH!) Afterwards Pete, Derek, Shaun, Jason and myself retreated to Pete and Derek’s room. Within a few seconds Jason, Shaun and Derek were playing Asshole. Pete was catching up on his journal writing but needed my journal to do so. Pete made the mistake of not keeping up, I was one of a small handful who had kept up.

Then I realized my error. For several years before the trip, I was infamous amongst my friends for my antisocial habits, I was a Vulcan at heart if you will. I have no idea what really happened but something, or someone sent me into emotional turmoil. Next thing I knew, I wrote the following journal entry:

Observer’s Log: Supplemental
It’s only 13:35 (1:35 in the afternoon for those of you who can’t read 24 hour time) and I already miss the girls. Why exactly I don’t know because I’m not normally an emotional person. Probably the person I miss the most is Lisa Van E. This is most likely because she has the same values and interests I do. She also writes long journals.

I had totally forgotten this entry, I was too wrapped up in the events of the day. When I did realize, I decided that maybe it was the time to own up to myself. I did nothing. But then Pete mentioned it. At first I was a bit caught off guard, I didn’t think that he would say anything. The last crush I had on anyone was four years before. Since then, I had been completely inactive socially. But I did not bother to hide the fact, I admitted it without regret. It may have been one of the most intelligent moves I had ever made. Pete then mentioned that it took a man of great integrity to say something like that. Either that, or he was completely off his rocker. I like to think it was both.

Soon, both Pete and I were actively watching the trio play Asshole, having a riot while doing so. They thought it was a blast. Pete however, knew something even funnier … playing it while you were slightly sloshed.

Almost instantly, Jason recalled the bottle of vodka he had purchased in Zagorsk. Some was gone, but not all of it. I myself had brought Tang crystals for adding a little flavour to the water. Jason put one and one to get … Vodka and orange juice! However, they made the mistake of trusting the mixing of a potentially disastrous drink to someone who dislikes alcohol. No matter, I thought I could do it, I mixed drinks for my parents all the time.

That hotel didn’t supply any pitchers, but I still needed something to mix the concoction in. The best I could do was an empty flower vase. I emptied the remainder of the vodka into the bottle and mixed in the other necessary ingredients. As for mixing, the hotel didn’t provide swizzle sticks either, a Papermate pen had to suffice.

Proudly, I brought the vase and it’s contents back into the other room. I plopped the vase in the middle of the table and Shaun pounced on it like a hungry panther, taking a huge mouthful from it. Almost instantly, his face turned to pure shock. He exploded from his chair, raced out to the balcony and spewed the contents of his mouth into the cool night air, and onto the heads of passersby below. Then he wheeled around to glare at me.

“What the hell’s in there?!?” he yelled.

“Vodka and Tang crystals,” I replied.

“Where the f–k is the water?!?” he screamed.

“What water?” I didn’t realize that water was one of the requirements. Somehow, the thought had completely slipped my mind. Silly me!

At this point, they all burst out laughing, simultaneously screaming “YOU ASSHOLE!” at me. This prompted me to break out laughing as well. So the five of us laughed ourselves silly. Don’t ask me why, it probably sounds strange as hell to you, but that’s what happened! After what seemed an eternity, we finally gained control of our funny bones. That night still plagues me, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing in the middle of classes.

After a little while, the guys got quite pissed. Not completely drunk, but a bit tipsy. We ventured out into the hall for some reason (I can’t remember what) and ran into some guy from California. The four of them then managed to scare the living shit out of him. But it wasn’t intentional. I think.

A little while after that most hysterical incident, the females arrived from their journey. While most of us declined to come down, Pete and I decided that we would be the welcome wagon for the remainder of our group. By the time we got down there (we happened to be lucky enough to catch the elevator, reducing the time to five minutes to get down), everything had been unloaded and they were getting their rooms. Pete and I instantly went into welcome mode.

While I was chatting away with Lisa V, Greg appeared. He was rooming with Andrew, who had come with us in the morning. Greg had already taken his junk upstairs and was now dancing around to the tunes from his Walkman, constantly babbling something about an English dance hall. I hadn’t a clue what he meant then, and even after a year, I still don’t know.

Then Pete and I “escorted”, if you will, Toni and Lisa V to their respectful room. Then we signed in for the night, as the arrival of the girls signified the end of an otherwise semi-inactive night (providing you exclude our antics up until that point). But neither Jason or I went directly to bed. Instead we went out on our balcony, plopped tapes into our Walkmans (Jason borrowed Pete’s), set our feet on the ledge and gazed into the city. The bright lights made it look more like a typical North American city than a Communist one. I almost felt at home.

Observer’s Log: Second Supplemental
Tonight, Derek, Jason, Pete, Shaun and myself got together in Pete and Derek’s room (actually, Denmark’s, which is Derek’s nickname, courtesy of Toni “Sven” Nixon) to play a card game called Asshole. While playing (I was watching, Pete was writing his journal) the question of ever playing the game when you were drunk. Jason recalled his vodka and my juice crystals. So he sent me to mix up some drinks. Little did I know that you are to add water to the concoction. The end result was a super-powerful drink which no-one could touch (I don’t drink so it doesn’t matter to me).