Today – as I travel to Iowa, sans CG but with the kiddos – my dear friend Bobbi shares a travel “what the frak?!” moment so big, it trumps leaving your luggage in your bedroom and not even taking it to the airport…
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Pickpockets and Politsia: Murphy’s flying-monkey henchmen, sent to do his bidding when he can’t be bothered to make the trans-atlantic flight to Russia.
It’s the stuff of nightmares.
Just three weeks ago, my roommate dreamed she’d gone to the airport and her passport was missing.
“I promise,” I said, “I will not let you lose your passport.”
I didn’t ask her to make any such promise. This was my first mistake.
It was the day before our flight home and all I wanted to do was buy a scarf for my mother. I’ll say now that I considered taking the other purse. The one with the zipper.
Not doing so was my second mistake.
It was a lovely morning. I walked around Ismylova, the Russian flea market, with my friends.
We had lunch. Sitting in the Sbarro Pizzeria (because they have these in Russia too), we talked about the things we were looking forward to when we got home.
“I’m SO ready,” I said to Taj.
This is where Murphy cackled loudly and sent a message to his flying-monkey henchmen.
After lunch, we continued the search for the scarf on Red Square. I admitted defeat, decided that my mother would have to be happy with some jewelry, paid, put my wallet IN MY BAG, and left.
After a quick stop by the bookstore, we went to the Metro to go home.
You know that moment when you realize that something very, very bad is about to happen?
I usually try to dismiss it as silly superstition.
It wasn’t until I got off the train two stops away that I realized it wasn’t superstition this time.
Something was wrong. Very wrong.
My bag was too light.
As we climbed onto the escalator, I reached into my bag and started frantically digging for the three pound, coin-filled monstrosity of a wallet, containing my entire life — certain that, like every other time I’d panicked, I would find it tucked safely away under my camera.
Only it wasn’t.
T-15 hours until I was scheduled to be at the airport, and the wallet with my identification, money, and passport was missing.
What. The. Frak.
I did what any rational person would have done in that situation: promptly burst into hysterical tears, the phrase “I want to go home,” the only thing I could manage to articulate.
It was there. I knew it was there.
And if it wasn’t, then surely I would wake up from this nightmare and start the day over.
We immediately called our program director, who suggested that we retrace our steps. Words like “US Embassy” and “Might not be able to leave tomorrow” were tossed through the phone like shrapnel, adding to my hysteria.
I didn’t know my night was about to get worse.
Little known fact: Murphy’s flying-monkey henchmen often have very normal looking day jobs. For example: Metro Guards.
Conversations happened. We went back to the dorm and our program representative laid out the situation for me in no uncertain terms.
“Find your passport. Or you can’t leave.”
This is where I point out that I have some REALLY amazing friends here, who gave up most of their last day in Moscow helping me search for my lost passport.
For one of them — and me — this turned the adventure from hell.
Following Jon’s advice, Taj and I set off in search of the wallet. We hit the bookstore and the perexod, where I was sure I had it. There, one of the little Russian women told us to talk to the police.
Taj and I exchanged a glance and a nervous laugh. The police? No. No. We would not be doing that. Thanks.
As a last ditch effort, we made one more stop in the Metro station where I thought it had been taken. I went in alone to talk to the Metro guard.
This was my biggest mistake of all.
Now, my Russian is really quite passable. I can have a basic conversation about most anything. But for some reason, it didn’t dawn on me that when she asked me “Can you write in Russian,”she meant, “Let’s make a police report.”
No, I didn’t realize that until the nice Russian Flying-Monkey Metro Guard had packed her bag, told Taj and me to follow her, and when I asked where we were going, she smiled and said, “to the police, of course.”
Taj and I collectively had a small heart attack.
You know that list of things they tell you not to do?
Going to the police is right at the very top. Because you can get arrested, especially when you don’t have a frakking passport.
As soon as our resident director found out via text message that we were at a Militsia station, she called. And told us, “Leave. Now. Do not make a police report. Sign nothing. Just go.”
Only… you can’t just go from the Russian police. No… In fact, as I learned, if you tell them “No,” they burst into derisive laughter.
Silly American girl… she thinks she can tell us no.
Taj and I tried backing away. We tried walking away.
Over and over again we repeated the phrase, “Our director wants us to leave. Now.” And the Russian police just smiled and ushered us inside, where we were placed in the corner of a dirty room at a table, and I was handed a pen and a piece of paper.
Still, we held firm.
“Our director. Wants us. To come home. NOW.”
And we tried to leave. But they wouldn’t let us. And I started to wonder if I’d ever get out of the station, hearing things like “Without a passport” being tossed around.
The scariest moment occurred when a large Russian policeman walked by, looked at us, and smirked.
“Students?” He asked.
“Ha…ha…” He snickered. “Welcome to Russia.” And without another word, he walked off, shutting his office door.
I considered crawling under the table and sucking my thumb. Only it was dirty under there. So I didn’t.
Finally, the Russian police woman asked to speak to our resident director. We thought this was a brilliant idea, called Karen, and listened to them hash out 10 minutes of very quick Russian on the phone.
Then – this is very important – she uncapped the pen, placed it in my hand, and pointed to the top of the paper.
“You put your name here.”
Deciding that Karen must have consented, I started to write.
But JUST as I put my pen to the paper, Taj got a look on her face like she was facing a firing squad, held up one finger, looked at me, and very forcefully said, “NO.”
I stopped dead. So did the police woman. I placed the pen back on the table.
One last time, Taj looked at the police woman and said, “We need to leave. Now. Our program director wants us back. Now. May we? Yes? Everything is good? Excellent. Let’s go.”
Then she stood up, grabbed my arm, and walked out. And as soon as we were out the door, she ran.
It was only after we were back in the metro station that I realized I was still carrying the paperclip from the Russian police station. My souvenir for surviving – unarrested.
Learning Karen’s instructions had been only one sentence long.
“Get the hell out of there NOW.”
The next morning, I sat in the windowsill and watched as my 19 traveling companions left for their flight home.
It would be another four days before I could leave.
What. The. Frak.