Here in the final part of Alien Visitors, there are a few more observations and encounters to relate and then we’re done.
I didn’t understand why folk clustered around St.Petersburg’s pedestrian crossings with such an air of deference, waiting for the numbered countdown to dictate their passage across the tarmac.
What was the problem? The broad, long streets approaching the docks on the western edge of the city were often sparsely populated outside of rush-hour (believe it or not), even devoid of traffic for enough time to cross comfortably. Visibility was excellent, yet the population stood obedient before their electronic masters – as if waiting for ghosts to pass.
It was only 3 years later that I realised the problem: me. It’s because I am a Brit and we Jaywalk with total abandon, unlike those in Poland, America, Spain, Austria and Russia. Jaywalking is the crossing of streets at undesignated, even hazardous points, or without correctly following pedestrian signalling. I was giving the Russian police an open invitation to stop me, go through my documents, and fine me on the spot. An encounter with some of the less “by the book” Sign out troopers could have cost me dearly. Stupid. Fortunately none were around to witness the actions of my ignorance.
I’d somehow missed out on this rule until a Russian friend returning from England had to ask me why everyone was crossing the street wherever they choose!
There’s some confusion here, and some old news that has ‘stuck’ since the 1990’s. I was never “rushed” by gangs of gypsie children seeking to pull my valuables from my pockets. I was never pick-pocketed, had my passport stolen by the mafia or was caught by a “money-drop” scam.
A tour guide explained to me that street harassment by semi-organised gangs did indeed happen but was more a factor of the nineties when the Wild East was in full swing and new, rich tourists were considered easy pickings.
In the same way that the local homeless/vagrancy problem is temporarily “solved” when dignitaries decide to visit your town; the notion of St.Petersburg as a petty crime hotbed was a problem when foreign cash (and reputation) was at stake.
As a result, such street urchins, their handlers and many other undesirables were spirited away by the Russian police.
However, theft of anything, anywhere, by potentially anyone is a possibility – so standard common-sense precautions are required.
The only blatant attempt to squeeze cash from me was made by a taxi driver -licenced by the ‘official’ cab control outside Pulkovo Airport. Grey economy, semi-official drivers wait to pounce in the airport’s exit. They will likely spot you and give you a borderline-harassment hard-sell, with little in the way of specifics if you ask for a fixed price to your destination.
Let’s see, they drive all over the city for a living but don’t know how much it would cost to drive to area ‘X’. It’s not very likely is it? Having agreed on an official fare from the kiosk outside, I was then subjected to an awkward trip, with repeated attempts to scam me for more cash: part sob-story, part route manipulation, part badgering -and I wasn’t interested in any of it.
Although I flat-out refused to comply; I was in a stranger’s car in an unknown city 4,000 miles from home and -as such- taking quite a risk. I still don’t know if I did the right thing. It would have been more risky in a ‘grey’, unlicensed taxi of course.
Alternatively, I used both Uber and Yandex taxis (the Russian version of Uber and Google combined) -and they were great. ‘Better to put yourself in a good situation than try to get out of bad one, right?