The driver demanded we get off the bus — we were the last passengers. I asked the driver: where is our hotel, Solo Sokos? He pointed across the street.
We struggled down the bus stairs with five large pieces of luggage and into the din of honking vehicles and thousands of in-a-hurry Russians. We were in the middle of a busy thoroughfare in St. Petersburg. We looked around to get our bearings but felt disoriented; every sign was in Russian, like this:
Еслихлеб падает , это масло стороной вниз
Our cellphones were useless — no signals, no wifi.
But where was our hotel? I noticed many people entering and exiting through massive doors of one particular building. Maybe it led to the hotel? I asked Bill to stay with our bags while I went inside.
It was the central subway station. The turnstiles were choked with commuters.
That’s when I realized the bus driver didn’t speak English and hadn’t understood my question. We were completely lost. Usually, there are some signs with English, at least around the primary attractions. But for the first time, no matter where we looked, we had nothing to help us locate ourselves.
Earlier that morning we had exited the ship from Helsinki and boarded the wrong bus. I remembered we had been given a map. “The map!” I said to Bill. I got it out of my shoulder bag and unfolded it. We stared intently — it was all in Russian.
We saw a young clean-shaven policeman and Bill suggested we get his help. I didn’t think this was a good idea but Bill was already asking if he spoke English. He looked us over then slowly nodded his head yes. What a relief!
Bill explained our dilemma, and that we needed to find our hotel. “Solo Sokos?” I asked.
The policeman said, “Yah. I know this. You go down…” He pointed a thick forefinger toward the thoroughfare. “How to say…?” He paused, searching for the words.
I offered suggestions. “And turn left?” He looked at me. I said, “Umm, turn right?”
He gestured limply.
I prompted: “Straight ahead?”
The policeman’s face became grim. He said, “Sorry” and shrugged. He couldn’t speak English after all. “I no help,” he said then turned and walked away.
We gathered up our luggage and peered up and down the busy streets. We looked like what we were: lost American tourists. Bizarrely, I felt comforted that our bags weighed upwards of 40 lbs each. If a thief grabbed one and tried to waddle away, he’d be easy to catch.
And we had no money — we had planned to exchange our euros for rubles at the hotel. We considered getting a taxi but didn’t have the address of our hotel, nor the name of it in Russian. I had heard multiple stories about taxi drivers taking advantage of tourists and we seemed to be the perfect mark. Regardless, we needed money no matter what we decided to try.
Back inside the subway station, I found an ATM and inserted my bank card. My heart sank as the screen lit up (naturally) in Russian.
There were eight buttons. I narrowed the possibilities to three. I pressed one and a new screen appeared in Russian with four blank lines. I decided it was asking for my PIN so I entered it on the keypad. Buttons appeared for choosing 500 rubles, 1000 rubles, 2000 or 5000 rubles.
I couldn’t remember how to convert rubles into American dollars. I chose 500. The machine whirred as it returned my ATM card, then gave me a crisp 500 ruble note.
I would later learn I had withdrawn the U.S. equivalent of $8.18.
We now had enough money to buy a small box of tissue.
But I knew I had made a mistake and didn’t leave the ATM. I waved Bill over and used his debit card to withdraw 2,500 more. Now we had 3,000 rubles, about $50. Not enough for a vacation, but it was a start.
We walked outside and looked at the dark gray buildings and the surly faces of Russians walking past us. The landscape with its endless unintelligible Russian signs was dizzying. I remembered my earlier posting about Getting Lost Intentionally, and rolled my eyes. I’m an idiot.
After tense discussions with Bill about strategy, I suggested we return to the bus stop. We trudged back and soon a St. Peters Line bus appeared. A couple that had been waiting at the bus stop in silence asked the bus driver — in English — about directions. It turned out they were from Atlanta in the US. Coincidentally, they had also been on the St. Peters Line ship. I could have kissed them.
They told us they had gotten on the wrong bus earlier that morning and had been wandering around downtown. We chatted like long lost friends as the bus zipped and honked its way through traffic, taking us to our hotels.
Then we saw the ocean. The woman pointed, “There’s our ship.” I looked at Bill and my heart sank. The driver had misunderstood. He was returning us to the harbor.
(To Be Continued)