Thursday, May 29, 2008

Saratov, Russia

Saratov, Russia....I went to Russia in April with a group of Rotarians although I am not a Rotarian. One of Laramie County Community College's trustees invited me to go. I was able to visit three universities and a middle school. We hope to partner with them on a variety of projects, including an exchange of students and faculty.
While I had wonderful experiences, I wish to tell you about a scary experience. The morning after we arrived,
I woke up around 5:00 a.m. I couldn’t sleep any longer; so I rose, got ready, and headed down to the Volga River. I wanted to be there before the sun came up. As I strolled along the river, I took some pictures. The closer I got to the bridge over the Volga, the pictures seemed to get better. I walked up and around a dirt patch. The closer I got to the bridge the dirtier the area around it became. I said to myself, “I will take a couple of pictures of the shadows in the river, and then I will head back.” And thus I did. When I turned to walk back up the hill, I was confronted by a policeman. Of course, neither he nor I could speak a lick of each other’s language. He was a big man with a grim face. He didn’t smile. He pulled out his identification and asked, I suppose, where was mine. At that moment, my heart began to speed up. I had heard about people being taken and never seen again. I had seen in movies how they take foreigners, beat them up, take their money, and then either kill them or throw them onto the street.

While all this was churning in my head, the officer took me to an enclosed area and called out. As he was calling out, he clanged the gate shut. Another man appeared at the door of a little shack. He was much smaller with black hair. He lacked one of his teeth on the right side of his mouth. He said something to me and then ushered me to a little room off to the left of where I entered. A small table stood in the center of the room and was shoved up against the wall. On the table lay two billy clubs. Another piercing to the heart—“they are going to beat me” raced through my head. On one side of the table was a bed. He beckoned me to sit down. He sat down on the other side of the table in a chair and began to ask questions. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word he said. Fortunately, I had my little Russian phrase book and began rummaging through it to find the right phrases to say or to show him. When he asked me something about documents, also pulled out my driver’s license and showed him. He took down my name and other information off the license. While he was writing all this down, I showed the pictures on the camera to the other officer. He wanted to see them all. I suspect they may have thought that I was a terrorist and was taking pictures of the bridge to potentially blow it up.

Then he began to pepper me with other questions. I attempted to answer them through showing him some of the phrases. Somehow, I told him about coming from Wyoming, flying into New York City, landing in Moscow, and then coming by train to Saratov. We also talked about me being a tourist and visiting the university. Through my gestures and pointing to my blue Laramie County Community College shirt, he realized that I was a “college person.” Soon, he was finished. We shook hands, and he led me out the door. Before leaving the building, I noticed several T.V. screens that monitored the surrounding area, including bridge. I am sure they monitored every step I took and then decided to give me a scare. A scare they gave me. Before I walked out of the gate, I shook hands, and the big man introduced himself as Alexander. At the gate, the other officer introduced himself as Valdamir. Alexander said “Good bye” in English, and I hightailed it out of there as fast as could, realizing that I must not run. I must not run. I must not run—this was I kept telling myself.

Once I got out of range, I hurried along the path until I was moving toward the hotel. I stopped to take one single picture of a couple of fishermen, and then I headed to the open, safe door of the hotel.