The opposite of Chaotic Cairo? Luxor - Saturday, August 31, 1991

Saturday, August 31, 1991

We woke up, took a shower, and checked out. We took a cab to the Egypt Air (MS) terminal to go to Luxor (LXR). We all flew in non non-revenue clothes. It was great. The MS plane (A320) was awesome. It was real spacious and clean. The flight took one hour and the view was spectacular. It was nothing but desert.

As we approached LXR, you could see the green land and the Nile river. We arrived and the airport was brand new and clean. Just by how the airport looks, you could tell it is much different than the hectic/chaotic Cairo. LXR is much more calm, sedate, and less traffic-ridden. There’s actually no traffic at all. We arrived at the Sheraton Luxor and got room #432. We had a view of the pool area and the Nile. You could also see the mountain range where the Valley of the Kings and Queens is located.

We unpacked and decided to go to the Karnak Temple on our own. Fab stayed behind because she was sick with stomach pains and hershey squirts. Ana and I took a cab and saw the temple. It was OK. Again, everything was broken. It had large-sized columns and some towers that looked like the Washington monument. It was a little frustrating because we didn’t go on a tour so we didn’t understand the details of what we were looking at. After that, we took a cab back to the hotel and ordered room service as Ana and Fab showered.

After that, I went downstairs and went to Thomas Cook travel to book a tour for the next day to the Valley. It cost about 70LE ($20) per person. It was a real hassle because they didn’t accept credit card and I had to get a cash advance and that took about two hours. I went back upstairs and took a shower. We all went to the restaurant at the hotel to have the Asian buffet (43LE per person). It was good, but a little too much. We were kind of splurging because we had room service every day, but it was worth it. We went back upstairs, watched Rocky V, and fell asleep.

Camels and Pyramids - Friday, August 30, 1991

Friday, August 30, 1991

The tour started at 0900 with Mohammed, the driver who took us from the airport to the first hotel. He was punctual and we were late. We went to Memphis where the first pyramid ever built stands. It’s called the “step pyramid” because it looks like giant steps. No one can go near the pyramid, but we saw it clearly from the road. There were kids playing in the field having a great time as we stood there and gawked in amazement. Also, Fab and Anne were a little scared because they thought this guy wanted to do something to us.

Mohammed explained the history of the Nile and how the people built the pyramid. Also, Memphis was the first capital of Egypt, then LXR, and now CAI. We drove through Memphis and then to Giza. There we took a camel ride for one hour to and from the pyramids and Sphinx. It was incredible to be in the middle of the desert on a camel. It was straight out of a movie. The ride came to about 10LE per person which is like $3 USD. This was really cheap. The guy had originally wanted 25 LE per person, but we complained that it was too high.

We visited a perfume shop and bought three bottles. The guy selling them to us should have worn some. I bought a Lotus Flower perfume bottle which was the first flower ever found in Egypt. It has a lot of historical and cultural value. After that, Mohammed took us to some shops to see how they make Papyrus paintings. We didn’t buy them because we got some on the street for half the price. In another store, we bought Key of Life charms, boxes, turbans, and wooden objects. It was real cheap. After that, Mohammed took us back to the hotel. We showered, ate at the Italian restaurant at the hotel, and took the bus to the Sound and Light show back in Giza!

The show was silly and touristy like a laser light show at the Planetarium with music and all, but it was cool to be in the middle of the desert at night. The breeze was awesome and the Pyramids and Sphinx looked great at night. We also saw the sunset behind them and we snuck into the Sphinx at night with the help of a guard to see it up close. The guy gave us little tombs and of course he wanted a tip. I gave him 5LE and he bitched, but I just left. After the show which lasted about 45 minutes, we went back to the hotel, ate shit for hours, and fell asleep.

Finding Leo in Eqypt...saved us! - Thursday, August 29, 1991

Thursday, August 29, 1991 (Cairo)

We woke up forcefully at about 0800. Leo’s mom was in a bad mood because we were still sleeping (including her own daughter, Leo). So, she put up the volume of the TV, opened the shades, and started clapping. I felt like throwing her into the river, but what can I do. I woke up and got ready. Leo started fighting with her Mom and it got pretty ugly. Anne and Fab were trying to hold on to five more minutes, but no go. We all had breakfast in the room (bread, coffee, tea, and juice).

We then went downstairs to the American Express Travel office to book a tour to Luxor, Sound and Light show at the Pyramids, and a dinner cruise on the Nile. It took forever because we couldn’t confirm Luxor (LXR) to make it a one day trip. The only thing available was leaving Saturday at 1330 and returning Monday at 1030. Ana and I tried to endorse it on Zas Airlines with the Pan Am office, but no luck. We booked the cruise and the Light show. It took about three hours to do everything so our day was almost lost.

Fab, Leo, Mom, and aunt went to the Egyptian museum located near the Nile Hilton ahead of us. They did NOT want to wait. Ana and I went after to meet up with them. We walked around and it was OK. There was statue after statue. We finally found them and Fab told us to go see King Tut’s treasures on the second floor. They were tired so they all went back to the hotel. As Anne and I walked to the second floor, a guard told us to take pictures with flash which is forbidden) of mummified ribs. We did and then he started to ask us for money. I told him no because all the money was in the hotel. He got pissed and he started following us to make sure we took no more pictures. What a jerk!

We finally found King Tut’s room and it was cool. We saw his sarcarfogous and all the treasures. It was made of jewels and tons of gold. Anne took a picture with flash and a guard got mad and took her camera away, but he gave it back to us. After the museum, we bought postcards and stamps and we went back to the hotel. By the way, Anne, Fab, and I got same hotel room (#311) for two more nights at $75 a nite. Leo and company were leaving on El Al back to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) at 0100).

We ran into Leo’s aunt and mom and decided to go eat pizza and then to see St. Sergio’s church. This is the church that Joseph and Mary hid out in when they fled Israel. We all took a cab because it’s located in old Cairo which is pretty run down and poverty stricken. They were scared shitless, but they wanted to see it. We found the church, but it was closed so we saw. It was OK. After we visited the first mosque built (i.e. oldest) in Egypt (forgot exact name. I think it’s Ala Muallaqa). It cost 3LE to get in and we had to leave our shoes at the door and the women had to wear some gowns which were on hand. It was hilarious. Fab looked like a camel because her backpack made the gown bulge out the back.

As soon as we started to tour the place, we were hounded by beggars. There is lots of this in Egypt. All you hear is “Money please. Money please.” After a while, it gets old and exhausting. This tour guide at the mosque explained to us that this is where people come to rest and pray. The women are enclosed behind wooden walls. It was nice because it had just been reconstructed. As we left, we had to tip the tour guide and the men to give us back our shoes. You constantly feel the need to tip because the people almost force you to do it.

We went back to the hotel and got ready for the Nile cruise. After we showered and dressed, we took a cab to the Nile Pharaoh boat. The cab ride was fun. I sat in the front and the guy was driving like crazy and I asked him why he didn’t have his headlights on. He simply said, “We do not use them here.” Dinner was OK, but it was worth the $14 to just see Cairo at night and to say we “cruised” the Nile. During dinner, there was an authentic Egyptian show with a singer and belly dancer. The belly dancer was great because she was all made up and pretty. When she danced, she smiled and did her thing. As soon as the lights went down, he lit up and she crudely smoked a cigarette like it was the last one she was ever going to smoke. She didn’t look too happy. This observation somehow broke the illusion of this whimsical belly dancer acting free and happy. What was behind it all?

After the cruise, we went back to the hotel and Leo and company left to the airport. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and then, as usual, fell asleep as the next day was Giza tour day.

Next Stop: Cairo! - Wednesday, August 28, 1991

Wednesday, August 28, 1991

We woke up at 0600 to catch the flight at 1000. Isham told us he would take us to the airport and that he would be downstairs at 0715. We showed up at 0730 and he was there waiting. What a guy! He took us to the airport and when we got there it was amazing. There was a mob of people waiting to get into the airport. You have to pass a security check just to step foot in the airport. It was chaotic. We finally got inside and went straight to the Olympic Airways (OA) counter. We checked in and got boarding passes right away. There was a long line for passport control so we decided to be special and flashed our Pan Am IDs and went through the crew only area. We thought we were the coolest and biggest scammers of all time.

At the gate, we waited for 1.5 hours. When we got to the gate security check, they told us we had to get our passports stamped. So, the rig job did not work. We had to go back and get them stamped. After that we had to get searched. Fab and Anne went to a woman. It was hilarious because she grabbed them everywhere sin pena ninguna. A guy had to check me, but he did not do it with such passion. I looked decent so he didn’t seem to care. We finally got on the plane to Athens (ATH). The flight took 1 hour and 30 minutes. I was real embarrassed because we had mama-sized carry-on bags. Other than that, the flight was fine.

When we arrived in ATH, we had to wait six hours for our OA flight to Cairo, Egypt (CAI). So, we decided to go see the Acropolis. We changed money and clothes. We went to store our bags, but it took a long time because the place was packed. From there, we took a bus and it dropped us off near some ruins and we had to walk through Plaka (Old Town) and up some hill to get to it. When we got there, we only had enough money for two of us to enter so Anne and Fab went in because I had already seen it the previous year. They stayed for about 30 minutes as I wandered near the entrance and soaked up the Greek atmosphere. They really liked and we walked back down where they conveniently found a store to do more shopping. I sat on a sofa waiting and waiting until I fell asleep.

After about 30 minutes, they woke me up and took a cab back to the airport. We didn’t have much money so as Anne and I waited in the cab, Fab ran into the airport to get more Drachma. He got pissed, but we didn’t expect it to be so expensive. He took us to baggage storage so we can get our bags and now we had to go back to the OA terminal. I think it’s really stupid to have two airport terminals like 20 minutes apart. That’s really good planning Greek people. We took a cab instead of the bus which cost us like $10. He charged for each of us and each bag. What a rip off! We got there finally, checked in, and waited for the flight. We ate those awesome Chocolate Chip cookies which come in the brown rectangular box. We boarded the flight to Cairo, Egypt on the continent of Africa. Finally, I set foot in Africa. It is really a dream come true.

I never expected to go to Egypt first. Kenya was the place I always wanted to visit, but the thought of Egypt was getting more interesting and exciting. Anyways, it’s a lot cheaper! We got to CAI late at night. We stopped at a hotel desk to make reservations. We had the guy call the Nile Hilton to see if we could speak to Leo, but no go. She was not there. So, we made reservations at the Pharaoh Egypt Hotel. They guaranteed it was within walking distance from the Nile Hilton and a four-star hotel. It was $60 a nite and we had to give the guy a $20 deposit. I gave him the money and we were off.

As we approached passport control, this guy came up to us and asked us if we were American and visa-less. We said yes so he arranged for us to get the visas ($2 each). I was a little disappointed because I expected this huge visa stamp, but we only got a little postage sized one. He then asked us if we had a video camera. We said yes and he informed us we had to register it because if not we would be charged $1000 when we left Egypt. He seemed like a gift from God doing everything for us and giving us these tips. On the flip side, it also seemed he was waiting for us like we were on his organized tour or something. He was too nice and probably wanted something from us.

After that, he pulled out his book and had us go over a tour itinerary (I knew it. What an asshole!) so we could see everything. We sat in his office and started to talk and talk. BLAH BLAH BLAH. BLAH BLAH BLAH. $40 for this. $80 for that. $160 for Luxor. Three-day tour of everything came to like $250 per person. Internally, we all laughed and I told him that we would call him. He even hailed a cab for us. It was strange because we had to walk to it, but anyway we did it. As we were walking, some kids came to help us with our bags. We thought they were with the cab driver. They put everything in the car, so I gave them one pound each and they started to complain. They wanted more money! I gave them an additional five and they still complained. The driver then told them to leave and we realized they were not with the driver. That little scenario would be played over and over again throughout our Egyptian jaunt. Before we left airport, Ana got a hold of Leo and she had told us to go over to her hotel so we could stay with them, but we felt bad because they had made a reservation at the other hotel.

We drove about 30 minutes to the hotel. The driver (Mohammed) was telling us the hotel was far from the Nile Hilton (Lie #1 for the hotel desk guy) and he then proceeded to sell us his own tour to Giza (pyramids, Sphinx, and Memphis Step Pyramids) for Friday. His cost was $10 per person as opposed to $40 per person from the airport guy. Mohammed seemed real honest so we trusted him. He looked decent and cool and it turned out he was. He dropped us off and we checked in.

When we got to the room, there were only two beds and the room sucked. The air wasn’t cooling right so we all weren't too happy. I went to the front desk and demanded my $20 and Ana went to call Leo to see if we could crash. I got my money back and Leo’s aunt said to come over and that she would be waiting for us. We took a cab to the Nile Hilton (now known as simply the Nile Hotel) and went right up to room 311. We talked to Conchi for a while about their trip to Israel and our trip to Turkey. We then went downstairs near the casino to see Leo and her mom. They were buying cartouches from a guy Leo picked up. We talked for a while and then went into the casino. We lost like $5 and Leo won like $28.

After that, we went to eat at the hotel restaurant. The first thing you should know about Egypt is that the service is very very very slow. It took about 1.5 hours to get served. We all ate cheeseburgers and french fries. The fries have a weird taste because they are made with 100% real potatoes and not all the pesticide induced ones. Frankly, I prefer the taste of pesticide. After that, we went back up to the room. Leo’s mom had set up sleeping arrangements and of course being the only male I had to sleep on the floor. I didn’t care because we were saving money and I was dying to go to sleep.

Best Taxi Driver in Istanbul - Tuesday, August 27, 1991

Tuesday, August 27, 1991

We woke up at about 0900 and had breakfast in the Vienna café. All we had was pancakes, bread, and juice and came out to like $10 per person. After breakfast, we took a cab to the Aya Sofia. It’s an old church and it one of the wonders of the Ancient world. It used to be the biggest church until they built St. Peters in Rome, Italy. When we got there, we discovered the Blue Mosque across the street from the Aya Sofia and went there first.

As we walked there, we were bombarded with kids selling postcards, hats, tops, and film. They were pain in the asses and followed us to the entrance of the Blue Mosque where Anne and Fab bought hats and tops. To go inside the mosque, we had to take off our shoes. I was reluctant to leave my shoes, but this other guy that Donna met (his name was Mehmet too) told me it would be fine. Thinking back I must have thought my shoes were made of gold or something.

The mosque inside was beautiful. It’s all in a shade of blue with lights hanging from the ceiling. The bulbs have to hang low because in the old days that the only way to keep the mosque lit was to change the bulbs. The bulbs had to be reachable. After the mosque, Mehmet walked us through the market (not the Grand Bazaar). Conveniently, his cousin owned a carpet store and he invited us inside the store for Turkish tea.

Fab, Anne, and I had apple tea and Donna had the Turkish black tea. It was hot, but really good. We were in the store for a fucken hour. His cousin was trying to convince us to buy carpet. They were real nice, but the cost was from $600-$6,000. We were told they were all unique, handmade, etc. We still found them to be quite expensive. Anne almost bought a $100 one. It’s interesting because all the carpets are made by 8-12 year-old girls. It takes them about eight months to do just one! Also, they could only do it for about two years because they could go blind if they did it any longer. That’s incredible!

After the carpet store, we waked to the Aya Sofia. It was okay, but it was pretty much under construciton. We heard the chanting prayer of the Muslims, so it was cool. After that, we walked to the TopKapi Palace which was closed. The let us peak in, but that was about it. As we walked down the street, we wanted to hire a cab to drive us to the Asian side. We ran into Isham (The Best Taksi Driver in Istanbul or so he claimed). This guy was unbelievable. He had the best personality and the gift of talking. He would not shut up, but was fascinating and made the whole Turkey experience very memorable. He gave us this business card:

Isham said he would take us for about $40 so we agreed. Donna was reluctant, but we convinced her. It was probably the best thing we could have done. He knew IST like the back of his hand. He is originally from Ankara, but he has lived in IST for 19 years. He is married with three children. We saw pictures of his family. This guy was the coolest. In the front seat, he had all these Slam books of all the people who he has taxied around IST. He even took Carrie Fisher to the airport one time. He didn’t know she was a star until some other customer told him.

He drove us through town and took us over the Bosphorus bridge to the Asian side of IST. We stopped to see the view and to this teahouse called Camilica. It was funny because when we were ordering drinks we were asking how much everything was and it embarrassed Isham. He was cracking jokes and flirting with Donna the whole time. At the teahouse, we had our passports stamped with an Asian seal and we even rode a rickshaw. After, we went to this small neighborhood called Cuskadar to have a typical Turkish meal with Turk beer. The beer was awesome. Anne, Fab, and I didn’t want to eat because we had no money, but Donna agreed to pay so we said OK. She ordered a little bit of everything: ham, cheese, tomato-like sauce, bread, meat and potatoes, vegetables, etc. It was good and the beer was awesome. I do not usually drink beer, but something about this trip has turned me into a beer-loving freak.

After the meal, we signed some books that all customers write in to say how they felt about the meal. As I looked through the book, they had people from everywhere. Isham probably brought all of his customers there and had a connection with the restaurant. The Turkish seem to be wise marketers and help each other out which is quite nice. We drove around the neighborhood and saw some wooden houses and more of the skyline (see video for visuals). It was getting late so we headed back to the European side.

As we headed back, we hit some traffic. He kept on bothering us and cracking jokes. Donna was drunk so he was big time flirting with him. All she kept saying was that she was going to bring her sister because she would drive the men crazy with her big boobs. Before going to the hotel, we stopped at Isham’s friend’s carpet shop.

Again, we were shown carpets for over an hour and offered us tea and coke. Donna looked the most interested so the guy was hammering her. She was funny because she would get him pissed off by not seeming too impressed or interested. She kept sucking her teeth with her finger and telling him she wouldn’t pay $15,000 for the rug. Later, she was talking about doing business with the guy so he wanted to talk some more. He was trying to convince her to buy 15-20 carpets to take back to NYC to see how they would sell. He told her he would guarantee that the carpets would sell. He thought she was rich because she kept telling him she was going to go home and come back the following week. This went on forever. Anne and Fab went outside and bought junk: shoes, boxes, earrings, etc.). After we went back to the hotel.

When Isham was dropping us off, he said he would take us to a typical Turkish dinner with a show for $20 per person. Anne and I wanted to stay because we had no money and the flight was early the next morning so we said No. Fab felt bad for Donna because she wanted to go. She was older than us, but she wanted to party 24 hours a day. Up in the room, Fab changed her mind and Donna left for the evening on her own.

NOTE 10 YEARS LATER: I received a postcard from Isham at my parents house (i.e. my old address). I will let the postcard speak for itself.

U-turn to idea ever! - Monday, August 26, 1991

Monday, August 26, 1991

We all woke up feeling better and indecisive about our U-turn to Istanbul (IST). In the end, we decided to go for it and hit Turkey. It’s funny because it wasn’t even on our agenda, but I guess it would be cool to spend one night in IST. We made the flight with no problem. We all sat in the back of the plane. I sat next to this older lady wearing sunglasses. She looked familiar, but I didn’t say anything. We started talking and it turned out that she was just laid off from Pan Am reservations in NYC. We shared our reservations stories, the company, and our trips. Her name was Donna and she ended up staying with us the whole time in IST. It was good because we got to split everything four ways. As soon as we went through customs, she became friendly with Anne and Fab so it seemed everyone would get along.

After customs, we went to the Tourist booth to find cheap accommodations. They recommended the Hotel Erboy. We had a Taksi driver take us, but as soon as we got there the girls wanted to go to the Sheraton Istanbul. The hotel wasn’t bad, but the neighborhood was ugly. I was kind of mad, but what could I do: three against one. Driving through IST seemed like a movie. The traffic was bad, the noise deafening, the people shouting and loud, but it was great! There were minarets everywhere. The city was beautiful. I remember studying IST, Constantinople, Byzantine empires, and Sultans in 6th grade. The Bosphorus strait divides the city and it’s the only city in the world that is situated on two continents (Europe and Asia). It’s incredible. We got a room for four people for $102 with a view of the Bosphorus. The mountains, ships, and water made it a spectacular view. As soon as we unpacked and changed, we started to roam the city.

We walked to this street (about 10 minutes from the hotel) that had a trolley. No cars were allowed and it was packed with people mostly men I might add. There were hardly any Turkish women on the streets and everyone stared at Donna, Fab, and Anne. As we were soaking up the city, we met Mehmet (i.e. Lurch). He came up to us speaking Spanish because we looked Hispanic. He wanted us to eat in his restaurant. It turns out he knows like 10 languages. He walked us to this leather shop to look at the jackets. Donna tried on some things, but she didn’t buy anything. We promised him we would eat at the restaurant at about 2100. After walking some more, we went back to the restaurant. The food was good, but it came out to about $15 per person. We freaked because the city was supposed to be cheap. I was upset, but what can you do. The meal consisted of appetizers, mixed grilled vegetables and meat, dessert, and Erse beer. The best thing was the beer.

After dinner, we walked through the side streets and we were bombarded with restaurant waiters trying to lure us to eat. It was annoying after a while. They followed you around like dogs. We walked through a street market and then took a cab back to the hotel. At that point, we decided to stay in IST another full day. We took a shower and slept.

Day of the Hershey Squirts and recovering in Frankfurt - Sunday, August 25, 1991

Sunday, August 25, 1991

Anne, Fab, and I woke up with the all time worst stomachache and diarrhea. It will forever live as the DAY OF THE HERSHEY SQUIRTS! Little did we think that the only remedy was a $200 hotel room and a McDonald’s feast. Yum. I felt sooooo bad I wanted to stay in Prague. Every time I would try to get dressed, I would go to the bathroom and Ana and Fab weren’t too far behind, but it seems I had it the worst. Finally, Fab, Anne, Carlos, and I get to the airport and we checked in for the flight. It wasn’t a problem because flight was empty. The flight took off on time at 0805 to arrive in FRA about one hour later. The whole time my stomach was killing me. Fab, Anne, and I had the same problem so it was kind of impossible to do anything because we had to constantly excuse ourselves to run to the nearest bathroom. We just couldn’t do anything. Carlos chickened out and decided to leave to MIA. It was great because he took back all the shit Anne bought in the Soviet Union including some think Leningrad books.

NOTE: I believe Vivian and Ralph stayed in Prague a couple of extra days. I do not recall them flying with us to FRA that morning.

We went to check in for the Athens flight and we were told it was oversold and that we would never get on. They advised us to try Olympic Airways. So, we lugged all our bags to a different terminal via foot and bus and then were turned away by this big fat Olympic Airways guy. We were so pissed because he told us we needed a printed ID75 ticket. We could only get it through Pan Am, but the flight was leaving within 10 minutes. We were so stuck. We took bus back to the Pan Am terminal to see if they could help us. The fare from FRA to Cairo was $250 and we couldn’t afford it. We tried every possible connection and the only thing we could do was fly to Istanbul the next day on Pan Am and take ID75 ($50) ticket on Olympic Airways from Istanbul to Athens. There were two problems with this solution:

1) We had to overnight in Frankfurt.
2) We had to overnight in Istanbul.

We were all tired and sleepy. Since we were so tired, we stayed at the Frankfurt Sheraton hotel. Awesome room (about $123 buckaroos) awaited us. We changed and went to the bathroom again. After some good bathroom time, we were starved. We roamed FRA airport and discovered it had a theatre, cinema, museum, library, supermarket, and of all things as Dr. Mueller’s Sex Shop. It was incredible to us. We have never seen an airport feel so much like a mall. It was like a little city. We didn’t go into the city itself because we didn’t want to change money and FRA didn’t really interest us too much. Finally, we found a McDonalds. I longed for American food especially French Fries. We pigged out and went to the supermarket to buy these chocolate cheesecake things. We didn’t care if were sick to our stomachs, we were going to eat those things. We went back to hotel and we fell asleep watching and old episode of Hart to Hart.

St. Charles Bridge and walking through INXS video - Saturday, August 24, 1991

Saturday, August 24, 1991

We woke up to an awesome day in Prague. The room rate included breakfast buffet so we all went downstairs and munched on the best food. It had been a long time since we ate so good. We also made sandwiches to save them for lunch. After breakfast, we took the metro and stopped by the church of Baby Jesus and St. Nicholas. Baby Jesus Church housed this small statue of Jesus.  It is really famous, but I felt it was NO big deal. The church was under restoration so we could hardly see anything.

St. Nicholas is a big cathedral with beautiful marble, statues, and an altar. After the churches, we went to Old Town Square again and there were loads of people. Everyone crowded around these guys hammering into steel objects and making them into icons and statutes. They would melt the steel in front of everyone. After, Fab, Anne, and I got lost from everyone. We rode a horse carriage around Old Town. It was good because we were tired. After that, we walked Prague’s historical mile. It extends from the first arch (i.e. we went to the top and view was incredible. It then goes through St. Charles’ Bridge. The bridge was crowded, but all the local artists and views from the bridge make it good. We took about an hour to walk the whole thing.

After the bridge, Ana, Carlos, and I wanted to find the Palace, but Ralph, Vivian, and Fab wanted to go back to the hotel. Actually, R and V wanted to go see the Kafka museum and Fab wanted to sleep. After walking a while, we went into the booth and found out that the castle closes at 1700. So, we went back to the hotel to get Fab so she could see it. Of course, she didn’t go. So, Anne, Carlos, and I went on the metro and by foot to the Palace. It wasn’t that far walking, but we had to walk up a hill.

The first thing we saw was the Church. It was the largest and most beautiful church I had ever seen. The outside looked ancient and the inside was hu-fucken-mungous. It was awesome. As we were leaving, the guards weren’t letting anyone else in and we felt lucky we got to see it before we would leave the next day. After the church, we walked around the Palace grounds and saw incredible views of Prague. It’s such a strange city in that it is much nicer than what the name implies. It sounds better in Spanish – Praga. We then decided to walk through old town one more time and get the metro by the museum stop. We walked on a bridge that was next to the St. Charles Bridge. The was view was spectacular because you saw people kayaking, boating, and sailing on the river with the bridge and the city view on top of them.

It was funny because there were these backpackers on the river bank with all of their things sprawled out. They must have smelled like crap. After the walk and Old Town for the third time, we went back to the hotel. We had to take a shower, pack, and sleep because were to leave for Egypt the next day. Carlos was still undecided about going. When we got to the hotel, Fab was hungry so we all went to the hotel’s restaurant and had the worst and most expensive meal in a long time. We ordered cheeseburgers, but all we got was bread with melted blue cheese. We also ate these slices of awesome chocolate cake that Ralph would devour each night there. After dinner, we went back to the room and slept until the next morning.

Onward to Prague - Friday, August 23, 1991

Friday, August 23, 1991

We all woke up at 0445 to get ready for the airport. Thank God that I took a shower and packed because in the morning I didn’t feel like doing anything. The bus was waiting for us at 0530. The PA flight was at 0805, but you had to go through customs so everything took longer. All us were scared of getting all out things confiscated. So, we hid them well in our bags. When we got on the bus, everyone was dead asleep or waiting for us.

The ride to the airport was long and gloomy because it was raining hard. We checked in and passed through customs with no problem. I was surprised they didn’t even open any of our bags. Ana got a first class seat, but I didn’t so she gave it to Cristina (NOTE FROM 2001: Who the hell is Cristina?). The flight was two hours long and comfortable and the plane was empty. After we landed, we had to find Fab and Carlos so we can all go to Prague.

As we checked in, the person at the counter advised me that I had to call home urgently. I ran to a phone and spoke with Mom. She said everything was fine, but that Pan Am had been calling the house for days saying that I got recalled back to work and to report to work on Monday, August 23! There’s no way I could make it to work. When my brother called for me, they tried to trick him, but everything is fine because Pan Am has NOT spoken with me or advised me of anything. We’re simply going to day that I had a flight with family and that I simply took off. I have not even called home. They do not know where I am.

I was happy to talk to Mom and Pe. I kind of wanted to go home. After a week, which seemed like a month, I didn’t want to sleep in a hotel or eat unfamiliar food. I was exhausted and sick to my stomach. I told Mom and Pe that I would continue to Prague and make a decision on Sunday, August 25. After I hung up the phone, I saw Fab and Carlos. They were glad to see us. They had been traveling on their own through Budapest, Vienna, and Frankfurt. During the military coup, Fab’s father sent them out of Hungary. He was scared they would close the border.

Everything is looking good for U.S.S.R. The coup failed and that is very important. They checked in and all if us were ready for Czechlosavaskia (sp?). The plane ride was only one hour. I was glad to see a new place and Prague has always been on my list because of all the INXS videos from the Kick album. By the time we changed money and hotel room it was about 1600. We all crammed into a two-person room at the Diplomat. It came to about $38 per person for two nights and that included breakfast!!!

After we got the room, everyone got dressed and we took the metro to the museum shop. Ana coordinates this elaborate plan not to pay for the metro ride, because there were no attendants, but in actuality we had to get a pass or something. So, we got snagged and fined like $30. Everyone was not too happy. Prague didn’t look like any other E. European city. The city is vibrant and exciting. We walked around to find something to eat. We went into this restaurant with a garden and we all had Czech beer, chicken, or beef. It was OK. Dinner came to about $6 per person. After dinner, we walked to Old Town Square and it was cool. It wasn’t really what I expected, but it was great nonetheless.

The city actually reminds me a lot of Paris, but better and different. We also saw the view of the palace from across the Vltava river. It looked incredible. After that, we all decided to go back to the hotel. There were only two beds so you do the math.  We were traveling on a shoe-string and we could not afford another room.

St. Peter and Paul Fortress & Concert to celebrate failed coup attempt - Thursday, August 22, 1991

Thursday, August 22, 1991

We woke up and had breakfast. We had fried eggs, bread, and Pepsi. Nicolas gave me Soviet passport covers, cigarettes, and other pins. After breakfast, we all took the bus to St. Peter and Paul Fortress. The church had an incredible altar. What pisses me off is that everything is under restoration so you can’t see much. Ana traded the white jacket she had for a watch so that was good. We then took a boat to the River Neva from the fortress. It cost 50K and it went around for 15 minutes, then it dropped us off at the Winter Palace which was convenient. We then walked (again) through the Winter Palace Plaza and saw Leo get on a horse and ride around on it. She looked hilarious and that too is captured on video tape.

After that, we walked to St. Isaacs Church & Plaza and passed by the Aeroflot office. The church is awesome because it was wasn’t being restored so you could see every detail. It is probably one of the best churches in the world. We also climbed up to the bell tower. Leo’s mom almost died, but she survived the climb. The view was incredible. No pictures or video was allowed, but we snuck a few shots in. After church, we went back to the Pan Am office to check the flight again and the agent assured us it was empty and we would have no problem.

After that we went back to the Astoria Hotel to watch some CNN, go to the bathroom, and buy some chocolate and Sprite. Everyone was hungry, so we went to the Literary Café. The Spaniards at the hotel highly recommended it. Well, it costs five rubles just to get in and a typical Russian meal was only 150 Rubles per person (that’s about $5 USD). We wanted to leave, but we were hungry. We had bread-like things that were cold, caviar, tomatoes, soup, beef, and ice cream. Everyone hated it because it costs a lot. We were getting used not paying for meals, so this was a big shock to us. The only good thing about the place was that there were two women played the violin and piano throughout lunch and the atmosphere was typical Russian, ornate, and elegant.

After that, we had to go to the LED hotel to change money again. Ana and I changed $8 USD each so we would have enough money for taxi and other things. Then, Anne, Vivian, Ralph, and I took a cab to Art Unlimited. It’s an art store that wasn’t that good. Ralph bought a nice water color for $1.50 USD. As soon as we left the place, hustlers hounded us with watches, shirts, sweats, etc. I traded two Pan Am headsets for an awesome Soviet watch. I also swapped my Coppertone T-shirt for the LED Hard Rock Café shirt. Even though the shirt is fake because there is no Hard Rock in LED, I still wanted it. I think it was the best trade so I am happy.

After that, we walked to the Palace Plaza and there was a concert that was about to begin. We decided to go back to the hotel. We took a cab there, stayed, and tried to rig a late dinner at the hotel, but it didn’t work. We had some bread, but to our surprise Leo’s Mom saved us some Pepsi, more bread, and some butter. We pigged out and then Anne, Leo, and I took a bus back to the concert. We took the wrong bus so we had to hail a cab, which took about 30 minutes. Finally, we got there and it was awesome.

There were people everywhere: on top of the statue, on top of cars and vans, and every inch of the plaza seemed to be occupied. The rock concert was held to celebrate the failed military coup. Everyone was enjoying it. The music was good and we stayed for about one hour. After that, we walked back to the Astroia hotel so Leo could meet this guy. I get diarrhea so we left the hotel. I had the biggest pain in my stomach from all the non-complete meals.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw this guy grabbing this girl around her neck and the girl was screaming. We didn’t know if they knew each other or not, but it looked violent. Come to think of it, it was the first time I saw anyone angry and violent. The people are great, friendly, shy, happy to talk to you and quite funny. On that note, I forgot to write about some of the people stories from that day. We had stopped at the black market earlier in the day. People were hounding us to buy everything. No one would trade anything for the Pan Am items. They all laughed at Anne and I. It was funny as shit. Leo told some guy, Gregory, that she was going to give him sneakers and to wait for her tomorrow at 1700. He was hitting on her and she wanted to get rid of him so this poor guy thinks she’s going to give him some sneakers.

After the concert, we went back to the hotel and we heard the neighbors arguing again. The bitch took another tour without the cargo guy. We packed, showered, and went to bed. Oh, by the way today was Ralph’s birthday (28 years old). In the morning, we went to his room with a Twix bar stabbed with a candle and sang him Happy Birthday. It was the best we could do.

UPDATE ON SITUATION: Everything is stable now. They arrested the military heads who tried the coup, Gorbi is fine, people are happy, we are safe, and our parents will live!!!! By the way, I would definitely pay to come back. It was great and the experience was once-in-a-lifetime.

Visiting the U.S. Consulate and Diman our "black market" friend - Wednesday, August 21, 1991

Wednesday, August 21, 1991

Everyone fell asleep last night pretty late. Anne wrote in her journal and did word searches the whole night. She kept me awake and it was quite uncomfortable, but she was worried so I didn’t care. The reason we were up late was because Anne, Leo, Ralph, Conchi, Chiqiu, and I stayed up talking about everything (school, Cuba, the situation, and just bullshit banter). It was funny because all of a sudden someone threw something at the window and we just shitted, but we figured it was someone upstairs who wanted to sleep. We were very loud and making too much noise.

Anyway, we finally woke up and went to breakfast. Breakfast was an experience. We had arepa-like things that were not too good, but Ana got there late so she didn’t have one…at first. This loca vieja with pony tails from Michigan (we’ll refer to her as just loca) had like five on her plate. I turned around and asked her for one and she said fine, but in a pissed off mood. I gave it to Ana and the loca was complaining that she paid for the food. So, I turned around and said, “Excuse me what did you say?” She acted like an innocent victim. Ann then gave the arepa back to her and the loca took it back. What an asshole!!!!!!! The loca then had the nerve to take all the tables’ Pepsi bottles, bread, and other items to take to her “guest.” I’m telling you this woman was crazy.

After breakfast, Anne, Leo, Chiqui, Conchi, and I took a cab to the U.S. Consulate so they could register us and then we went to the Pan Am office to check Friday’s flight. The woman was nice and the flight was booked 70 out of 131 so we weren’t too worried about not getting out. After Pan Am, we went back to the Astoria hotel to change money. We went back to the hotel at about 1400 to each lunch. Lunch was good, but the same as the days before: meat and potatoes.

After lunch, Anne started talking with Diman, a black market hustler kind of guy. He is 19 years old and all he does his hang out in the hotel lobby to sell to tourists and trade things. He spoke street-English and he knew exactly what to say and sing. He did a rap song for us which we have on videotape. Politically, things were still bad and he expected fighting in LED this weekend. He was real nervous and Ana asked him why.

He said, “I am worried about my mother, civil war, and most importantly my future. I will leave this place with communism prevails. I cannot stay in the Soviet Union. Why are all of you so worried about this?” He couldn’t understand why we were so worried about what’s happening because we were going back to the U.S. and we had nothing to worry about. He was the one that had to stay because he couldn’t just get the right visas to leave the country. He asked Anne if he could go in her suitcase. The conversation with Diman was funny at first, but then it turned cold and serious. He left an impression on us because he was a little bit younger than us, funny, nice, and he was deeply affected by what was going on.

In the afternoon, we continued with the city tour. We had to go to the same sites in the beginning because there were a bunch of new people. Of course, the city tour sucked because of Helen. She was driving us freaken crazy. She is one moody bitch. After the city tour, we went back to the hotel for dinner. We spoke with Diman and others for a while and then Anne, Ralph, Vivian, Cristina, and two Worldspan (WPS) ladies went to the Astoria Hotel. Ana called her Mom and she said everything was fine and that everyone back home knew that the coup had failed and that they had arrested the six people who organized the whole thing at the MOW airport. We found that out during the city tour. In St. Isaacs Square near the Astoria, there was a democratic rally and the place was packed. We stayed for a while and then Anne, Leo, Ralph, Vivian, and I went back to the hotel.

Leo hung out in our room and we started to talk about everything. It was funny because our neighbors started to fight. The guy works for Pan Am in Miami for the Cargo department and he was mad. Anne, Leo, and I started to listen closer because they were really loud. Well, it turns out that wife got mad because he had talked to Leo and Anne and because the wife was late getting dressed and they missed the city tour. So, she left him and went on another tour. He was hurt and she didn’t care. We all agreed he was right and she was an inconsiderate bitch. After that, we videotaped a make-believe news update talking about the coup and the neighbor’s fight. It was stupid, so we erased most of it and went to bed.

Gorbachev kidnapped, but we enjoyed The Hermitage! - Tuesday, August 20, 1991

Tuesday, August 20, 1991

At 0830, I was awakened by the sounds of fists pounding on the wooden door. For a second, I thought I was late for school or taking too long in the shower. The pounding continued and suddenly I realized the pillow smelled like dust not Downy, the sheet was like paper and not a comforter, and my legs dangled over the bed instead of touching its edges. I smiled at the thought of my observations, but was again interrupted by the loud sounds of fists pounding on the old wooden door.

Leo & Helen, the tour guide, banged again and yelled, “This is the police! This is the police! We’ve come to arrest you!” As I approached the door, I almost tripped on the neatly packed emergency evacuation bags waiting by the door. I rubbed my eyes, opened the door, and told them to SHUT UP! Ralph and Vivian opened their door as well. Helen is a short woman, a little overweight, red to brownish hair always pulled up in a bun, and made-up with lots of lipstick. She is feisty and I believe she is WITH one of the drivers. They seem all over each other in an on-the-side dirty kind of way. She spoke perfect English and her voice, although thick and Russian-accented was strong, independent, and assured.

Leo, her mom, and her aunt arrived fine in Leningrad (LED). They said that on Monday at about 1330 all the MOW sites closed. They couldn’t see the Kremlin cathedrals and Red Square was closed off with buses and Soviet reporters were all around. All the streets up to McDonalds were closed. They said there were tanks in the Square and mobs of people. Everything was peaceful, but Leo’s mom and aunt were a bit scared, but Leo thought it was adventurous and exciting. I kind of wish I was there videotaping it, but I was glad to be out of the center of it all. At least, if anything happens, we would be close to Finland.

Helen told us, "Don't worry‚the police isn't here yet, but I am here to tell you the tour to the Hermitage Museum is leaving in 30 minutes.” She then went on to tell about some important news and ended the conversation with a loud and sudden Bye! I closed the door and thought about what she had told us “Gorbachev is sick in his summer home overlooking the Black Sea and no one knows what's wrong with him. He may even dead. “We don't know," she said.

It was funny how she said, "his summer home‚overlooking the Black Sea." It seemed to make the situation more pleasant. Looking back now and thinking that as I visited all the sights, haggled with the street hustlers, and ate bread and butter, a Russian Revolution was taking place. History was changing before my eyes and it was incredible. It was dangerous and I felt lucky that I was there. Surprisingly, I could actually say that the whole experience made me more conscious of how delicate the fabric of a country's political and social structure is. I did not prevent the coup from happening or save Gorbachev from the “evil empire”, but I lived through it. I was scared to die, but you know in the face of death one appreciates life and for some the view of the Black Sea.

Helen and the others said it was safe in LED. The tour of the Hermitage started at about 1100. We all were excited to finally get out of the freaken hotel. We were sick of the seeing the same four walls. Oh, by the way, breakfast was awesome. We had bread and eggs. A new waiter, Nicolas, gave us pins and Soviet flags. He was real cool. On the way to the Hermitage, we saw huge crowds of people crossing the bridge and men with flags (and without hats) riding on horses. It was pretty cool, but a bit crazy.

The Hermitage is incredible. It has five buildings and it’s located in the Winter Palace. It got its name because the Czars and Peter the Great built Catherine a room so she could hide away from visitors and become a “hermit.” We were there for about three hours. It houses thousands of art objects from paintings to sculptures to furniture. Helen said if you saw every object for one minute, it would take you nine years to see everything. The museum also has paintings from Matisse, Picasso, Da Vinci (two of the 14 originals in existence). It also has Florentine inlay table carvings in color. We left the museum and went to the Winter Garden Plaza which you can see from inside the Hermitage’s many windows. It’s a huge plaza. We started to trade stuff with some Soviet guys. They had watches, hats, etc. and we had Pan Am headsets, Marlboro T-shirts, calculators, and other items. During one of the stops in the museum, Helen started to speak loudly of the situation on how lucky we were and she tried to explain what was happening. We caught the whole rant on video and it is quite moving as she spoke with conviction and fear.

After that, we went back to the hotel. For lunch, we had potatoes and meat, but I did not eat the meat. Nicolas gave us cigarettes, Soviet passport covers, pins, and viewfinders. He is probably in his late 50s, early 60s. He is short, wears sweaters, and he seems happy being a waiter.

YEARS-LATER NOTE: Throughout the trip, we would see him walking home at night which made me wonder about this life, his family, how he came to be the waiter of some crazy MIAMI kids flying around the world rather spoiled, but totally impressionable by what they were experiencing in the moment with no worries and no regrets. It was beyond belief what I was experiencing and it made me overwhelming grateful to be me. I had never quite experienced that up to my Pan Am days and I welcomed it with open arms. I think of Nicolas now and I wonder where he is. Is he happy? Is he sad? Does he remember us?

After lunch, we went on a city tour and saw St. Peter & Paul Fortress, St. Nicholas Church, St. Isaacs Church, and St. Issac Square. In this square, the bus stopped so we could buy water at the Astoria Hotel. It’s a hotel that has every Western comfort in a gift-shop-like store. After buying water and sodas, I found out that we could call back home, but it would cost us big time. We had NOT called home before because we simply had no way of doing so. We went to the business center to use a hotline phone. After the introductions, I noticed a television set blaring international CNN. We saw the coverage on the news for the first time and realized what everyone back home was watching: complete upheaval and tanks on the streets. I felt like finding a CNN reporter who would interview us so the world can see we were OK. Better yet, I have to call Mom so I did.

She was glad I called, but she didn’t let me talk. She was screaming, “vete para Finlandia! Vete para Finlandia!” By the tone and capacity of her voice, all I heard was: Get the fuck out of Russia now and go to Goddamn Finland before you give me a heart attack and we told you not to go to fucken Russia. I told her we were all registered with the U.S. consulate and that we were not in any danger. I ended the calm explanation of our existence with the words parents do not like to hear, “No te preocupes. No te preocupes.” I believe all she heard was: Don’t worry overprotective mother who smothers me and nags me about everything including a trip to the Mother of all Communist countries that is directly related to the asshole Fidel Castro and all the bad things he has done to Cuba. I told her to call Vivian and Ana’s parents. It was a weird two-minute conversation about Finland and no worries. We hung up. The call cost $37 USD. I was glad she knew her Commie son was alive and well kicking it back in the U.S.S.R.

We finally left the place after 45 minutes and everyone on the bus was waiting for us. Helen, the American women from Worldspan(?), and the Swiss man were pissed and they couldn’t understand that we HAD to call home. Obviously, they do not know what it is like to be born of Cuban parents. They do not realize or begin to fathom Latin parents and their nerves. I didn’t care that we made them wait. I felt bad, but what are you going to do. By the way, the old woman from the night in the Moscow hotel didn’t go on the tour because she fell at the hotel and was pissed because no one saw her. I am glad she didn’t go because she is a nagging bitch.

We went back to the hotel for dinner. We had picadillo and rice inside squash. It was good. Nicolas had left each of us pins and we gave him money and American coins. He is the coolest. After dinner, we went upstairs and hung out in Conchi’s (Leo’s mom) to watch TV and discuss the whole situation. Conchi called the U.S. consulate and they told her that LED is safe, but MOW is heating up with all this political shit. So, I am glad we were in LED. Tomorrow, we plan on going to the U.S. consulate and to the Pan Am City Ticket Office (CTO) to see how the flight looks. We’re kind of worried because Pan Am only has one flight a week and we have the feeling a lot of Americans would want to leave LED. So, we’re praying things will be fine.

UPDATE ON SITUATION: So far, there are note any military tanks in LED, but MOW is full of them. The latest news is that Gorbachev is under house arrest in this summer home in some Baltic state. Yeltsin is the new acting President and wants to give Gorbi his time to speak to the people. The military has seized all power. Things are shaky, but we have no CNN and the people don’t really know what is going on. All we know is that a self-appointed social committee took over and Gorbi is out. This situation is serious and everyone back home must be worried, but I have a feeling everything will turn out for the better.

Smell of Coup Attempt in the Air from beautiful Leningrad! - Monday, August 19, 1991

Monday, August 19, 1991

The train was rocking so hard this morning that it woke me. I had a sore throat, dry mouth, and blisters on my lips. I didn’t feel very good. I couldn’t brush my teeth because the bathrooms were really gross and the water did not look clean. Thank God I brought Evian, Tylenol, Sucrets, and Anbesol. They saved my life. The train arrived in Leningrad at 0800. As soon as the train stopped, a man from GTC Corp came and met us on the train. I was surprised they were right there waiting for us. I thought we were going to have to wait a while. Off the bat, I felt the people were more talkative and open.

We arrived at the Grand Palace Hotel (Palace of Youth). The rooms were awesome. There was a living room, spacious bathrooms with big showers, and a working refrigerator. We had breakfast (fried eggs, bread, and cold cuts). After breakfast, we were told they were going to take us on a tour at 1000. We went upstairs to change and unpack. We had not realized a tour was included so we were pleasantly surprised.

NOTE: Before arriving at the hotel, we passed through the city and it was beautiful. We passed by the Winter Palace, where the Hermitage is, cathedrals, and other buildings. The city has over 300 bridges and beautiful architecture.

While I was getting ready, I heard some people outside the room talking to Ralph. He called me to hear what they were saying. I opened the door and a woman called Helen and two drivers were standing there saying the tour was postponed until after lunch because they did not know how safe the streets were. They had just heard that Gorbachev was overthrown in a coup attempt and the military was taking over. I thought...wait a minute, can’t they wait until Friday afternoon... They said Gorbachev had no power and the military was saying he was ill. It was scary and bad news, but they assured us we were safe in the hotel and not to worry. Helen took our passports to register us (whatever that means). We trusted her because she looked decent and she spoke perfect English.

The first thing I thought about was our family members.  They probably knew by now and they were probably extremely worried. I wanted to use the phone, but the government cut all phone lines even the ones in MOW. We were also worried about Leo and company because they were supposed to arrive two days from now. We knew from before that it was difficult to call out of Leningrad, but this situation made it even more difficult.

We all sat in one room saying how adventurous, dangerous, exciting, and scary the situation was. I was a little skeptical because even the employees of the hotel didn’t know exactly what was happening. Either they were left in the dark, or they did not want to worry us. We decided to take a nap until lunch. After lunch (at about 1430), Helen said they had confirmed it was a successful military coup and that Gorbachev was no longer in power. Some guy named Nievev or something was the leader. Yeltsin was even ousted.

We were tired of being in the hotel so we asked them to take us around the city. They dropped us off at a flea market. The people were more aggressive. Boys came up to us asking for gum. I guess they saw us chewing some. They were surprised we shared the gum with them without asking for some of the dingy postcards in their hands. People were selling old religious icons. Ralph wanted to buy a $250 one, but we all doubted its authenticity and he felt they would confiscate it at the airport. Another thing we were worried about was that there is only one flight per week out of Leningrad so we were stuck here. The only way out, if anything would happen, would be to take a train to Helsinki, Finland and fly from there, but we didn’t even want to think about it.

After the market, we asked them to take us to the U.S. consulate so we could register and try to call home. We got there and there was a crowd of Soviet citizens waiting for visas and applying for them. We walked passed them up to the guard and advised him we were U.S. citizens so he let us right in. Once inside, it felt safer. Outside, the people looked tense. Not happy and not sad, just tense. I guess they were just waiting for something to happen.

It was funny because earlier in the market there were some guys saying “Gorby is dead! Gorby is dead! and that there was a special sale because it was the last day of capitalism. We laughed, but it was weird because I didn’t know what to think. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? I knew it was bad, but they were laughing about it and almost taunting us. Another strange thing was that I asked Helen about rock concerts and she said “no more.”

Anyway, we talked to the employees at the consulate and they assured us it was safe in Leningrad. They confirmed again that Gorbachev was out, but that’s all they knew. An American girl told us that there was a curfew in the Baltic States and that in MOW there were some peaceful demonstrations. After we registered with the consulate, I had to go outside and ask Helen for the address and phone number of hotel in case of an evacuation emergency. When I stepped outside, I heard a woman say that there were tanks in the streets of MOW so it kind of freaked me out a little. After I got the information from Helen, I went back inside.

The consulate was full of more Americans. I felt safer knowing there were other Americans in the city because I hadn’t seem them at the hotel or in the streets. They also told us the phone lines were out so we definitely couldn’t call home. Although that was bad, we felt good about registering with them and we left our home contact information in case anything would happen. We left the consulate and they took us to the mall.

The mall was depressing. Helen told Ralph and Vivian that 80% of the people were poor and alcoholic. Leningrad seemed to be more real than MOW. The people seemed more honest and less stuffy. They weren’t afraid to say things are bad and that they too are scared. The mall had little to offer. People stood in line to buy the strangest things: hairspray, barrettes, and buttons. Things were quiet. We left after 20 minutes and went back to the hotel because dinner was at 1830. We got back to the hotel and took a nap.

Dinner was good. We had bread, potatoes, steak, and Pepsi. Thank God we didn’t have to drink another seltzer water. After dinner, we went back to the room and just hung out. It was funny because I made Ana pack everything. All of us showered and had everything ready in case anything happened in the middle of the night. We stayed up late writing in our journals and doing Russian adventure and Greek Island word searches.

Essay written about this day:

I woke up as the train pulled into the Leningrad train station at about 0800. I remember waiting five days before the trip to tell my parents where I was headed. I had told them I was going to Europe and when they would ask me where, I would say I was flying into London and out of God knows where. In that time of my life, I worked for Pan Am and they were used to me just picking up and flying off somewhere on a moments notice. But, this time I felt really guilty because I knew how strongly they felt about me visiting a Communist country.

“We left Cuba to get away from a political situation you’re going to admire as a tourist,” they said.
“The situation is a little bit different. It’s not about politics. It’s not about me wanting to hurt you. It’s about me having this learning opportunity to see a part of the world now and I’m not going to pass it up. There are many places I want to go to see for myself, and Russia is one of them," I responded.
“You can stay here, finish your last semester of college, and learn all you want. Please don’t go.”
For a moment after we arrived in Leningrad, I thought of myself stuck in traffic trying to make it to an Economics class. Then, as the hotel driver knocked on our door calling out our names, I knew I was exactly where I was suppose to be.

After checking into the hotel, we ate breakfast. The hotel’s tour desk had advised us we were going on a tour of the city. They suggested we go to our rooms, unpack, and be ready within the hour. Not even 20 minutes had passed, when we heard a loud conversation in the hallway. At the same time, we all opened our doors to find Helen our tour guide and two of her drivers giving us a message.

“The tour is postponed until after lunch because they didn’t know how safe the streets were. They had just heard that Gorbachev was missing and the military was taking over. Gorbachev no longer has power and they are saying he is ill. Don’t worry about anything. We will keep you posted.”

We were all stunned. As we gathered in one of the rooms, all we thought about was our family. We wanted to use the phone, but the government had cut all phone lines. There was no way to communicate with our loves ones. At lunch time, Helen came to give us an update.

“They had confirmed that it was a successful military coup and that Gorbachev was no longer in power.”

“So, what do we do know. We need to call home. We need to call Pan Am to see when they are going to re-instate the flights,” we all said in unison.

“Don’t worry. Leningrad is surrounded by tanks and it’s own military police. They will fight to their deaths before letting anyone destroy this city. What are you so worried about? At least you will have the option of leaving. What about the people that are here? What are we going to do? I know Gorbachev is not perfect, but we were finally getting the freedoms people deserve. We were finally seeing a future. What about us?”

For the first time in my life, a government was controlling me. We could not call home. We could go out, but had to be back by a certain time due to a curfew. I felt I was stuck in a situation where I did not know how to react. For the first time, I realized how within my life, I thought I knew everything. I made my own decisions and did what I wanted to do. But now, I was just another being on this planet in a situation beyond my control. For the first time, I felt trapped and helpless. These people we met in Moscow, Helen, and her guides, must have felt like that all the time. I thought of my parents and how this is what they never wanted me to feel.

Real-life carriages and Lenin laying in a glass casket - Sunday, August 18, 1991

Sunday, August 18, 1991

We woke up and had omelet, bread and porridge of some kind. The omelet was good. We took a cab to the Intourist hotel office to meet the tour group. The tour started at 0930. We went to the Armoury Chamber Museum. It was a museum you could only visit with a tour group. It costs like $18 USD, and worth every penny,. The entrance was a big vault, like you see in bank robbery movies. This place contained clothes, costumes, carriages, thrones, crowns, and gifts of the Czars and Czarinas. There were jewels galore and everything laced with gold and diamonds. The opulence and affluence was everywhere, It makes you wonder why they don’t sell some of these treasures to make enough money to get the country out of its economic hell-hole, but I guess they can’t just do that. After the Armoury, we went through the Kremlin grounds and saw everything again.

OBSERVATION NOTE: The people are great, but they are hesitant to talk. I thought they would be more talkative, but they are tentative. Their clothes do not match and they stare at our clothes (not that we dress nicely or anything, we are pretty ordinary). The only people who talk to us are hustlers, they all sell the same exact postcards, watches and t-shirts. The city is clean and less muggy and gray than I had imagined it.

After the tour, we went back to Intourist and had chips and coke.

Later we wanted to go inside Lenin’s tomb/mausoleum. We stood in line for about 40 minutes. The time went by quickly because people aren't allowed to stand in front of the casket gawking and taking pictures. The line continues moving as hundreds of people walk by and catch a glimpse. We were inside in no time. Cameras and  video recorders were not allowed and there were guards every two feet watching and keeping order. I had my sweater wrapped around my waist and they made me carry it. Also, they stopped me inside to examine the bump in my t-shirt. It was my money belt containing my passport and wallet. I felt so secure and at the same time so frightened.

As soon as we walked into the mausoleum, we saw Lenin lying in a glass casket. I was told by Svetlana that his face was a mask, but his hands are real. I guess the face fell apart. He just lies there and he appears to have been overweight. All the guards stood around the casket. The room was freezing and it was made of black and red marble. It was actually an incredible site. It was communism at its best. It was the first time I felt unsafe because we were the only Americans inside. We had gone during non-tourist hours. The waiting in line, seeing the people, hearing them interact, watching the kids run around, looking at the wedding couples lay flowers outside the tomb for good luck, and seeing this guy in a glass casket was so worth it. It seems, the Russian people see Lenin and the tomb as their God. He is the ultimate symbol of the Soviet Union and Communism. It is amazing, in a weird way  to see so many people respecting this man. Of course, we do not care for him or his views, but to these people he is somebody grand.

When you leave the tomb, the line continues outside behind the mausoleum. Other important Soviet figures are buried around the outside of the mausoleum. I think John Reed (the American Journalist. I.e. Reds) is also buried there. I didn’t see his name because all the plaques were in Russian, but I read it somewhere.

After the tomb, Ralph and I went to make reservations at Savinsky’s Bazaar while everyone else went back to the Intourist hotel to use the bathroom and eat chips. Ralph and I found the restaurant and we were automatically let in when they found out we were American, a party of seven, and had USD. We entered the place and were escorted to the back of the building. I heard music and we entered the main dining room. It was incredible and it surprised me because from the outside the place looked like a dump.

There was a stage and the restaurant had a large dome with high ceilings, intricate architectural detail, and statues everywhere. We walked up stairs and met a waiter named Andres. He said we had to pay him up front, but of course we balked and didn’t. He said fine and that it was going to be $10 USD per person. The fee included the meal, drinks, show, etc. We made the reservations for 1900. We walked back to the Intourist hotel and met up with everyone else.

At 1430, the city tour was to begin. It was raining and we did not feel like going and we wanted our money back, but it was too late. We got there late with Ralph and Vivian the last to arrive. Everyone else on the bus was complaining. The tour was boring. We saw everything we had seen again! I was already kind of sick of Red Square. Instead of getting off the bus, I stayed on and slept during the stops. We passed by KGB headquarters, the U.S. embassy, 6,000-room hotel (largest in Europe), Bolshoi Theatre, Kremlin, film studios, etc. The tour dragged on for 2.5 hours. What made it worse was that our tour guide was rude and pessimistic. She talked about the poor and state of living of all the Soviets. It was like we were deaf, blind, and mute. It is sad, but you do not go on a tour to hear this information which is very apparent by just looking around. We saw the long lines, lack of goods in stores, mothers on the subway floors holding dirty, small children begging for money. I did not think it was necessary for her to talk about it on a bus full of tourists. What are we going to do about it? We’re here to visit a new land and experience a different culture. If anything, we were stimulating their economy. I got upset and wanted to say something, but I didn’t .

After the tour, the bus dropped us off in front of the Intourist hotel. Ana, Leo, and I wanted to see Gorky Park. I was actually obsessed with it because how can we come to MOW and not see it. We took a 50 ruble (just over $1 USD) cab ride and it was awesome. The entrance reminded me of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, but not as grand. I think there was going to be a festival because there were stages and food stands set up around the park. In the rear of the park, we could see an amusement park. It was a young crowd and all of them seemed inebriated. We were there about 15 minutes because we had that 1900 reservation and everyone was waiting for us. When we were leaving the park, some people were pulling strings tied to balloons and this one guy fell and the rest of them dragged him on the floor until he hit his head and back on the bottom of some stairs. It seemed painful, but we felt he was a bit foolish for not letting go. We took a cab back to the Intourist hotel and met up with the group.

After going to the bathroom, we took a cab to Savinsky’s Bazaar. Everyone else loved the place as much as Ralph and I. We even discovered individual party rooms. We sat down and had cold appetizers: cheese, lettuce and cucumber salad, gelled ham, meats, egg salad, Vodka, water, and some awesome white bread. The service was slow because this was a restaurant where you sat and ate with lots of time because there was a show to watch, but our train was leaving at midnight (we thought it was) so we had to go back to our hotel to pack and shower. We asked Andres, our waiter to please hurry. He asked us for the money in the middle of dinner. He seemed to look worried that we were not going to pay him or something. We obliged and paid him. He was content.

The main course was beef and mashed potatoes. It was actually good. For dessert, we had ice cream. The show had singers, dancers, and vaudeville-like acts. It was pretty good. My favorite was this heavy-set lady with a funny hat. At about 2130, Ana, Ralph, Vivian, and I had to leave, but Leo, mom, and aunt stayed. We got to the hotel at about 2140 and were told the train was leaving at 2305 and the ride was picking us up at 2200. We had 20 minutes to shower and pack. Luckily, I had almost everything put away so I took a quick shower and we were all off to the train station.

It was really cold outside, the car kept stalling and to top it off, had no headlights. We finally made it to the station and it was jumping like a mad house. There were people everywhere. Thank God the driver went inside and got tickets and a porter. The porter took us to the train car, but before that we had to walk a ways through the station itself. We passed by the mobs of people. It smelled like urine. It was straight out of a movie and it reminded Anne and I of “Midnight Express.” The place was creepy. We finally got the train and had our bags delivered to the berths. The berths were very comfortable. We each had a bed so it made the trip less exhausting. We got ready to sleep and the train departed at 2305 on the dot! We all said good night and hit the sack.

Standing in many lines and discovering TrenMos (a little bit of Trenton, NJ in Moscow, USSR) - Saturday, August 17, 1991

Saturday, August 17, 1991

We woke up early and had breakfast. It consisted of cheese, bread, and this disgusting cottage cheese/cheesecake/pudding thing. It tasted like garbage, but I had to eat some of it because I was starving. After breakfast, we went back to Red Square to see it during the morning and when it wasn’t cloudy. The day was warmer than yesterday, but the weather here is schizo. It changes a lot. Oh..I forgot to write that we took the metro to Red Square and it costs us 15 kopek which is like less than a penny. We then went to the Intourist hotel and had coke and chips. Intourist has a monopoly on all the country’s tourism and the hotel costs about $100 USD a night. After that we went to the post office to call home and send postcards. The postcards were easy, but the phone call was difficult because I could not understand the operator. So we went back to the Intourist hotel and I called with my Visa card.

After that, we walked down Gorky street and entered a store. I’ll start with this fact: one has to make three different lines just to buy one thing. One line for a sales rep to help you. The other to actually pay for the item, and the last one to pick up your purchased goods. Ana, Ralph, and Vivian bought like 1,000 wooden dolls. I bought one. These are the nesting dolls that stack into each other. We also bought some really cool pins. It was all very cheap. After we walked to McDonalds. The line went around the park. It was incredible. It seemed like the thing to do so we stood in line with the rest of the folks. Vivian had tried to rig getting ahead of everyone, but that doesn’t work in the U.S.S.R. We met a nice employee who spoke English and she tried to get us in, just to see it, but she couldn’t help us so we left and saw some man playing around with a monkey for money.

Soon after that, Ana discovered her USD was missing. We (frantically) went back to hotel and money was tucked safely in her wallet. She sighed relief and we all went to the dining cabin for lunch. Lunch was good today. We had tomato soup and pork with potatoes. Then, I went to the check-in center to see what was for dinner (the food was exciting me) and ran into Leo, mom, and aunt. They had just arrived after their flight being delayed for hours. They were glad to be in MOW. I met her mom and aunt for the first time and they were nice/cool people. After they unpacked and got ready, we all went back to the Kremlin and Red Square.

We walked around and went to the Intourist hotel to book some tours of the Armoury Chamber, Kremlin grounds, and the city sights. After, we walked to the GUM. It’s a State Department mall. It had Benetton. We were about to buy the whole store when we realized the prices were in New Rubles which made it a lot more expensive than we thought. We soon left. We met some Soviet computer students who tried to sell us watches, military hats, and sweatshirts. They spoke English well and we talked for a while. After GUM, we all went to TrenMos. It is a restaurant that was suggested by a flight attendant and that they gave Pan Amers discounts. It was about $5 USD per person to eat a good meal. We were supposed to go to some Peking restaurant, but the people were not very nice so we took a cab to TrenMos.

TrenMos is a restaurant owned by Jeffrey Ziegler who was originally from Trenton, New Jersey. He opened this American restaurant in MOW, thus the name TrenMos. We ran into the same flight attendants who were on Leo’s flight and we talked for a while. The food, service, and atmosphere were awesome. The bill which included meals and champagne was only $16.00 USD for five people. It was incredible. I had pasta. We toasted to things Russian and to the whole trip. We even bought bottles of Champagne. A flight attendant also suggested this place called Savinsky’s Bazaar. It served great Russian food with a traditional Russian show. We took a cab back to hotel and talked to Leo’s aunt and mom. It was funny because we spoke loud and we woke up this vieja who was on the flight with Leo and all she did was complain about the food, hotel, and us talking loudly. It was only about 23:00 and she was having a coronary. So, we talked louder, she was so annoying!!! We soon stopped, went back to our rooms, fell asleep, and had good dreams.

Moscow's Cow Tongue and that Red Square - Friday, August 16, 1991

Friday, August 16, 1991

We arrived in MOW about 9:40 a.m. A soon as we left the aircraft, I saw a sign for Cuban cigars from Havana. The sense of irony just overwhelmed me. We went through customs easily and the people from the hotel were right on time. We had to wait because the others on the tour with us still had to go through customs. We stood in line to change dollars. I changed $60. The exchange rate was good: 32 rubles per 1 USD. We got back a wad of money…almost a book. After that, we still had to wait, but the driver decided to not make us wait longer so they took us to the hotel. The ride was about five minutes. The hotel was actually a small cruise ship docked on the river. It was pretty unusual, but cool. The rooms were cabins with two beds and a mini bathroom with the shower head serving as a sink faucet and the shower itself. As you took a shower, the toilet area got wet. At least we had a place to sit while showering.

We unpacked and went to have lunch in the dining room as lunch was included in the package. All I could say about lunch is that the bread and butter were awesome. We were served some kind of meat that looked pretty bad. Ana kept saying it had “hair.” Later, we discovered the hair was actually taste buds and the meat was garnished tongue. Really,  great?

After lunch, we asked for information about the city. Svetlana, an Intourist rep (InTourist is the largest tour operator in the country), who spoke perfect English, got us a ride into the center of MOW (Kremlin, Red Square) for $10 USD. On the way, the taxi driver crashed. We sat speechless. It was a minor accident, but he almost lost control of the car. It was also raining, so that didn’t help. A cop stopped him, but the other driver didn’t care so everyone went their separate ways. The driver dropped us off in Red Square at about 2 p.m. and it was chilly and drizzling rain.

Red Square was impressive, but not that impressive. St. Basil’s Cathedral (designed by Brama and Postnick) for Ivan the Terrible was awesome. Note: The story about the eye gauging incident is only legend, not fact. It was in the distance and it looked like a cardboard cut-out. It looked so Communist and real and I couldn’t believe I was standing there. We passed by Lenin’s tomb. It is made of black/gray granite and it sits to the side of the square against the Kremlin wall. We walked by it because there was a large crowd waiting for something. We went into St. Basil’s for about 20 kopeks (like nothing cents) and it was no big deal. It houses several churches and glass cases with Faberge eggs. When we walked outside again, we saw three guards marching toward Lenin’s tomb. We figured it was the changing of the guards, so I ran after them with a video camera. It was incredible. Everything is timed to the second and every hour on the hour, they change guards. We wanted to go inside, but it was closed. We then saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (the one with flames) and the garden area to both sides of the tombs.

After that, we walked inside the Kremlin. We saw several cathedrals from the outside and then we took a taxi back to the hotel. It cost us only 20 rubles (less than one dollar). The hotel lady ripped us off. Well, they have to make money somehow. We got back to the hotel at about 6 p.m. We skipped dinner and went to sleep. The sleep was to last 13 hours!

Russia when it was still very COLD war-ish! - Thursday, August 15, 1991

Thursday, August 15, 1991

We did it.  We booked a GTC GROUP TOUR via Pan Am:  Hotels/Meals/Transfers and Train from Moscow to Leningrad for one week: $375 per person. Flights covered by Pan Am flight benefits. To good of a thing to pass up if you asked us. Also, just this morning, I drove to the university and dropped my last semester of classes. This was my opportunity to travel 30 days straight and I was not going to cut this trip short. I can still hear my screaming parents (and my grandmother supporting my decision). What the heck right? It wasn't going to kill me. It would be a trip of a lifetime.

However, the day did not start very well. I hadn’t slept because the day before I told my parents where I was really going and my father was so mad that I would go to Russia, the mother of all Communist countries. He was insulted and did not want me to go. The only one who supported me was Aya, my grandmother.
Mom, Dad, and Pe, my brother, thought that I was crazy. Furthermore, they were tormenting me about school because I was scheduled to start in the next two weeks. That morning I drove to the university and dropped all of my classes for the last semester. I dropped out without even thinking about it twice because I knew I would be gone for some time.  I would finish upon my return, it wasn't like I was dropping out of school forever.

Hours before the flight to NYC, I had a car accident on the way to the airport. It was only a fender bender, but it would cost something and I felt bad. I convinced the guy not to call the cops, drive back with me to my house, and make my brother and mother deal with it as I sped off again to pick up Ana. I finally arrived at the airport and boarded the plane.  I was tired, hungry, angry, frustrated, and sweaty. I hoped the trip itself would be better.

The flight was great from MIA-NYC. We had Clipper Class seats. We snuck into the JFK First Class lounge and had some soft drinks. The flight to Moscow (MOW) left in 25 minutes (PA30 15AUG out of Gate 12.) The cast of characters on this trip were: Al, Ana, Vivian, Ralph, Leo and her mother, Fab and Carlos.  Others will join us.

I rode in first class for the first time in my life.  It was on a 747 I might add. The flight attendant served us for like 2.5 hours. It was awesome. Ana and I sat right in front of the bar area. After the meal, we fell asleep for several hours.