Behind the Iron Curtain - My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Sochi

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890708.16
Day 9
Today, we had a very wet tour of Sochi. This city of 130,000+ has only been here for about 150 years and does not have any significant history except for its Sanatoria, which are large health spas. They thrive on special mineral waters found in this area (they smell heavily of sulphur).
After we got back, Jason, Derek and Kelly B. went scuba diving and I went to track down others in our group. I soon managed to find Greg, Pete, Toni and Lisa Van E. We went swimming, talked a bit and then went for lunch. There, Toni and Lisa were showing some “suggestive” moves (they had been doing it since this morning) to Mr. Phillips, who took it all in stride.
At this point, Lisa realized (she actually declared it to the rest of us) that she was “The most covered up person on the beach.” This I heavily disagree with because there were several whales out there with bedsheets for bathing suits.

To say the very least, the weather we got that morning thoroughly pissed me off. This was weather I hoped we had escaped coming this far south. But much to my dismay, and Jason’s, it was raining. What was worse was that a week before, in every city that we had already visited, they had a record setting heat wave. This was unfair to say the very least. But seeing as we hadn’t yet developed the power to change the weather, we decided to venture down to the hotel’s restaurant for breakfast. As usual cheese, cold meats, eggs and bread were there.

Then we were let in on the morning’s tour. It had to come, we were expecting it. But the only parts of Sochi we were going to look at were in Metropolitan Sochi, the northern end. All but one place actually, which was less than ten minutes from our hotel.

Our bus returned to the road that had originally brought us down into the valley. As it was a one way street, we had to continue up the other side and back to the main highway, which was like Yonge Street (for those of you who know of it).

We headed in a southerly direction, in a heading that would take us back to the airport. But we were going only as far at the outer limits of Metropolitan Sochi. Along the way, our guides pointed out the other Intourist hotels (they always looked better than the ones we stayed in too — why would we have stayed there after all? We don’t need that kind of opulence, we were only students). We also spotted a stage being set up for a concertNorth American style.

Soon, we reached “Sulphur Valley”. If you’re wondering why I called it that, you would understand when you got a whiff of the air. It’s the sulphur that turns the Black Sea black and makes Sochi a major Soviet resort. In Sochi, there are countless Sanatoria. They aren’t insane asylums as the name might conjure up, but are actually health spas that exploit the sulphur rich waters to cure just about anything you can think of.

We reached one of the more famous Sanatoria, which was large to boot. We never learned the name however, our tour guide seemed to be constantly on Valium, and was by far the worst tour guide we had during the trip. Despite the rain, most of us unloaded to take a look around. The guide took us over to the main building, to a corner thereof. Here we found a fountain pouring out the precious waters.

A couple of the adults (Mr. McClelland and Mr. Findlay to be exact) went so far as to douse their balding heads. One of them exclaimed that their hair was growing back. But I doubted that was even possible. Just as things were beginning to look exceptionally dull, Mother Nature decided to spruce things up and let loose a downpour. You never saw thirty people move so fast to get back to a bus. I was running so fast, I accidentally ran right through the middle of a large puddle, completely soaking myself.

The bus then worked its way back up the road we had come down on to return to the highway, and reentered Metro Sochi. But instead of getting off for our hotel, we went right by towards the centre of town. We eventually stopped at one of the city’s several gardens. But by the time we had gotten there, the rain had stopped (which was good timing on Mother Nature’s part if you ask me!). We unloaded and entered the main gates.

Mural of Lenin, Sochi, 8 July 1989

It was a kind of Friendship Garden, every tree was planted through joint efforts from the citizens of Sochi and a sister city in the United States. In front of each tree was a clover shaped sign that read the names of people who planted them. One bore the name of Yuri Gagarin (this time I read it before we were told about it even though it was in Cyrillic) and another sign bore the name “ApolloSoyuz”.

Ceremonial marker bearing Yuri Gagarin's name, Sochi, 8 July 1989

After our short jaunt through the “Garden of Delight”, we hopped back on our bus to return to our hotel, not far away. The weather had already reached awesome proportions. The sky was now clear and it was rapidly getting much warmer. As nothing else had been planned, it was beach time! Several people made a beeline for it, after making a quick side trip to their rooms to get changed. These people included Pete, Toni, Lisa V and Greg. Derek, Jason, Kelly and I took our time, and probably for the better.

Undoubtedly, a few of us had to be caught completely off guard by the beach. Unlike the sandy beaches that we saw the day before, this beach lacked sand. It was made up primarily of fist sized stones. And hot ones at that. I was beginning to dislike this hotel more and more every minute. Derek, Jason, Kelly and I desperately tried to find the others. But there were simply too many people to look through and we had no idea where any of them were.

Near the only entrance to the beach (which was run by the hotel), there were a few concessions that sold food and water equipment. One of these places offered scuba diving lessons, which before Perestroika were reserved for the military only. I guess they must have liked the idea because Derek, Jason and Kelly signed up for lessons, which began immediately. I on the other hand, chickened out. I’m not afraid of the water, I love it. It’s the mouthpieces I can’t use. I choke on them, anything that goes in my mouth I try to eat. My dentist calls me “Captain Choke”.

Anyway, I resumed to the original task of finding my comrades before lunch rolled around. I left the main beach, thinking that they might have gone to another. Above most of the beach is a walkway for people who don’t want to go right into the beach area itself. This was a great help as it was much higher than the beach and gave me a good vantage point. But I still didn’t know what to look for.

Then my eyes caught something. A small, neon green and black Body Glove bikini. Toni. And I knew that where I could find Toni, it was almost certain that Pete, Lisa and Greg could also be found. I was down there in a matter of seconds. It’s a bit unnerving to be walking along the beach and suddenly notice a topless sunbather. Normally this would have sent my hormones directly to my abdomen, but this time, nothing happened. I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t think it was humanly possible to mature that quickly. So I dismissed that theory.

I have to admit, I never did figure out how Toni could wear some of the things she did without feeling (or at least looking like) she was being ogled. And believe me, that was one of the smallest bathing suits on the beach (the only ones that were smaller came from the topless Italian women). I’m still kicking myself for not taking a picture. Of course, one of the reasons of going to any beach is to go swimming (another reason is to go … sightseeing). And we did. The Black Sea take a bit getting used to, but it’s reasonable warm for such a large body of water that far north.

The swimming would have normally been rather dull if it weren’t for a breakwater that sat a scant 100 metres out in the water. It wasn’t a true breakwater as it didn’t stop the waves, but sat just below the water. The tricky part was getting on it without getting washed off. But that was also the problem, getting on. The waves caused quite a suction near the wall, which was studded with thousands of barnacles. My leg still bears the scars I received from bad timing.

Lunch rolled around not long after. We were in for a bit of a surprise that day though. We had borscht for soup, but with a twist. We had, as we might call it “Weinies and Borscht”. It was actually quite good. I guess that the wieners canceled out the strong taste of the beets. You could still taste them, but they just weren’t as strong.

We sat at one of the tables with Mr. Phillips, who had used his time to take a quick trip into town, where he managed to pick up some nectarines. But the growers had picked them a little early. They were under ripe and a bit on the hard side. Lisa V began to complain about her bathing suit, comparing it to Toni’s. I had no idea why she would even think of that. Toni’s had maybe one fifth the material that Lisa’s did. Then Lisa claimed to be, and I quite, “the most covered up person on the beach”. Although I didn’t mention it aloud, I did make a point to myself that there were several Soviet women out there that made blue whales look like ants. I didn’t even want to guess how much fabric their fifties style bathing suits used.

About an hour later, Jason and I were back in our room, contemplating on the afternoon’s activities, as none had been planned for us. Then came a knock at the door. We had no idea who it was initially, but we assumed it would be someone from our group. It turned out to be a dude we met in the elevator on our way up there the first night. He was from Armenia, and spoke no English. We figured out where he was from when he shook his hands, indicating an earthquake.

He did actually speak enough English to get his point across. He assumed we were American (the fool!) and wanted to see if he could exchange some of his money for an American dollar. He explained that he collected money and did not have one. And if you believe that one, I’m Josef Stalin. I only had a few American dollars left and did not want to give them away just then. We had been told of a dance that night (planned by none other than Derek and Greg) but we couldn’t get any tickets. As a result, we would have to try and bribe our way in.

We chatted for a little while, finally convincing him that we were Canadians (he already had Canadian money) and that our American was to precious to give up. American cash incidentally, is quite valuable over there. Despite the official exchange rate at the time (approximately $2 CAN to 1 ruble), we could get 10 rubles for a buck!

At this point in time, the devils in us began to break loose. They actually started the night before during our game of Asshole. After Jason and put some water in my extra strong concoction, everyone but me began to get a bit tipsy. This led to Shaun. His brain shorted out. It got so bad, he tried to use a bottle opener to open a bottle that had a screw top. When it didn’t work, he tossed it out the window in disgust.

Well, it must’ve caught on, because a lot more things began to fly from other balconies. Someone on the thirteenth floor (probably the same one who lost the bottle opener) tossed a few water balloons into the parking below. That’s when the cops showed up. The next thing was paper airplanes. Many us got into the act on that one. But someone did the coup de grace that night. The overabundance of alcohol caused them to toss their cookies (in other words, they puked) … on a taxi.

Eventually, dinner rolled around. I asked a few people if anyone had seen either Greg or Derek. I was curious as to where they had been all afternoon. But no-one had any idea at all. After dinner, I went up to the dance hall, and tried to get in. But I couldn’t bring myself to doing so. I don’t know why. Totally giving up, I retreated to the observation lounge on the fifteenth floor, and gazed down at the terrace around the dance hall. I could see everyone down there, but they couldn’t hear me.

I was feeling sorry for myself, something which I now realize was utterly stupid. I did manage to force myself back downstairs and into the dance hall, along with several others. It cost us three rubles, but we got in. That’s when I found out about Greg and Derek’s problem. Their entire afternoon of planning went down the drain when the managers of the hall decided that the music that they planned was better than Derek and Greg’s. Given, Greg and Derek’s music was about six months ahead of the manager’s selection, so they would naturally be apprehensive. Greg made a constant vigil with the DJs trying to get them to play just one of their songs. Most of the stuff they played I recognized, but did not dance to.

I’m scared to death of dancing, one might call it waltzaphobia. I explain it as having two left feet. I just don’t want to dance. Maybe it’s from a previous life. All I know is I can never venture out on a working dance floor and have good time. John Braniff was much the same way. Both he and I stayed outside, guarding our table which had just about everyone’s junk on it. Jason was also there, he didn’t dance either. However, if sixties music had come on, he would have gone too.

Greg came bouncing out of the hall into the cool night air, sweatin’ like a hog. Not only was it hot in there, but this dude was a heavy dancer. I asked him when they were going to play one of his songs. Almost as if in response, the beginning to “She Drives Me Crazy” thumped over the speakers. Almost instantly, everyone in our group who danced rushed in through the doors into the hall. I think there were three of us left outside. Five, tops!

The ironic part of the whole thing was that the managers had said no-one would dance to the music that Derek and Greg had chosen. Most of the people on the dance floor were Russian. Even Radar, the sexual party-pooper of the group got into the act. He gave us a bit of a scare, as he was already married, and he seemed to be making passes at Marina (who was good looking too, for a Soviet woman), but we knew that his own family came first. He had the lot of us cheering (and jeering) at him.

When I noticed this, I went over to Pete and Toni to tell them. They were standing away from the rest of the group and couldn’t see in the doors. Toni was quite pleased to hear it, she wanted revenge I suppose. I didn’t find out until the next day what Toni and Pete had been discussing. But according to Pete, their relationship was falling apart. At least one didn’t dump the other. At first Toni said they could work things out, but by the next morning, they had separated.

Once again, the abundance of fresh air brought Mr. Sandman on. And this time he dumped the whole Sahara Desert on me. But I didn’t want to leave for bed. I wanted to stay. Jamie took off to find me a sugar cube, which I hoped would get me hyper, countering my sleepiness. Much to the delight of John, who really didn’t like Jamie getting me the cube, I didn’t get at all excited. I was simply too tired. It pissed me off, I was always getting tired just as things were getting interesting.

Jason and Pete were at our table, discussing something over cheap wine. I bid them a good night, and made for the door. Ten minutes later, I was gazing out onto Sochi, listening to my music once again.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental
It was a very solemn night for me and a few others. I had only Radar’s antics to help cheer me up. They weren’t enough. For the fifth or sixth time in my life, the one person I thought I might have had a chance with ended up clear out of my reach. The worst part is, she was the best one to date … I doubt I will every find anyone better. Part of the problem might be me, I just couldn’t ask Lisa to dance, even after I tried so hard to get in. I wish this trip was over.