I watched rivulets of water crawl away from the engine’s thrust as we barrelled down the runway with no going back. Away they went, tracing their defeat across the porthole until the ground was no more and the climb was inevitable.
This was the flight out of Riga, a short hop to Pulkovo Airport, St. Petersburg, on a small twin-engined propeller-driven airliner. We descended 60 minutes later, through the cloud layer and into the slab-grey of a rainy, Russian morning. I peered out at the droning landing gear as it deployed, reaching to grasp the wet tarmac. “Do aircraft wheels ever skid in the wet?” I wondered helplessly, as the gear ploughed a bow-wave through the waterlogged landing strip, with a jolt.
Soon we were filtering out to the awaiting bus and onwards into passport control, to be scrutinised by the distant, alien eyes of the kiosk guard. No point in trying to work out what’s behind those grey sapphires I concluded as I managed a Russian “good morning” and handed over my passport.
Then, abruptly and without ceremony I was suddenly “there”, in the airport foyer. In Russia, with a rendezvous point west of city centre. The null that I had stepped into was suddenly fractured by the looming of taxi drivers hassling for a fare. As carrion birds they circled, locked on and dived. Pushy, persistent and somewhat vague about the exact cost of my trip, they were there to extract as much cash as possible, it was clear.
I can’t begrudge someone trying to claw a living out of nothing. One of these men must have been about 60+, haggard, counting on his health to hold out a little longer and still scratching away at the tourist rouble. I saw no evil in his eyes, just an enforced toughness born by circumstance. In a different world I would have heard his story, we could have been friends, but here I’m just his mark. It’s business.
The assistant at the information desk informed me that these characters were operating illegally (it seems to be something of a grey area), and she directed me to the airport’s official rank, operating out of grey booths on the forecourt. Here the fares are set and listed by distance, so it’s all clear cut, right? Wrong.
800 roubles bought me an argument with another grasping taxi driver hassling for cash. This time I was in the passenger seat as he complained his way through the city’s wide serpentine roads. “But the distance is long!” – no doubt he would’ve said if he could speak English. Instead he gestured at the orange vector graphic snake-line draped over his Sat Nav map. “But it will take a long time!” would have been another, though instead he rolled his wrist and gestured at his watch.
My Russian language is making “a little progress” – that’s the standard statement that I parrot (in Russian) every time someone asks. However I was not (and am not) yet eloquent enough to explain to him that the city layout and his employer’s pricing structure is none of my damn business. “I asked the taxi man at the airport, he said the price, I said yes, I paid him. That’s all”. That’s what I can (and could) manage along with: “This is a problem? Please speak to him”.
Firm politeness seemed to go quite far and silence reigned as the arterial roads give way to broad streets of shops and apartment blocks, their architecture blending until only a neon sign can differentiate their purpose. These Russian streets are grimy and old, fronted with beauty in decay, as a faded burlesque star driven to ruin. “For photographers, the dilapidated buildings are eye candy”, so says Jessie on her Jessie on a Journey blog. I have to agree; this unplanned majestic decline somehow crystallises St. Petersburg’s visual appeal.
The air is sulphurous from industry and port traffic, with black soot fumes boiling from decrepit diesel engines. There’s a taste of combustion bi-products that lodges in the back of my throat, and the combined haze of all ingredients hangs in the mid-distance, filtering the sun.
More of an effort is made to clean up the city centre in a bid to capture the interest -and money- of culture-hungry tourists. But, the traffic is still a brutal mudslide of honking drivers, jams and bad air. Out here, where the land watches the Neva flare into the sea, industry reigns and the ingredients of commerce lay piled port-side, awaiting instruction.
There’s just time for one last argument with the taxi driver. Sure enough, after he had paid the toll duty from the fare I was carrying it was only a matter of time before he wanted another 100 Rouble note, now that the original 800 had diminished. Strange, that. No doubt he was planning to keep the change from the first note, also. By this time I am frankly, not interested, even in speaking Russian: “You have 800, you paid the toll, you have the change. I paid 800″. He shakes his head and mock-laughs to himself. Surely he can’t seriously be thinking that he is hard done-by? In seconds he is no longer a part of my life. Our paths are irreversibly diverged and I’m standing with my bag, in the charcoal-grey-brown of the dirty street.
[Photo by roksen_andre]