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I'm posting this out of order, and also unedited and so on. The Loyal Readership has several missing days of entries coming (WALRUS LOVE ALERT!!!)(distant, worried-about-nuclear-icebreaker walruses).

These tour travel days are gruelling marathons of waiting, with sporadic deadlines. E and I left the rubber boots loaned by Quark outside the door before we went to bed (as well as hanging the "Do not disturb" sign out, something we need to do more often than not... people keep buying us drinks, and then we buy each other drinks, and then, inevitably, intense snoring follows, the kind that only a polar bear can disrupt.) Leaving is a gradual attrition, in some ways---a day or so ago we had to turn in the fluffy bathrobes and slippers---and a gradual accrual, in others, as we've been given now not only parkas (in Public Works Yellow) but a cute itty bitty ditty bag to tote stuff home in and a cute mini desk clock from the company that runs the "hotel" side of things---that's care and feeding of passengers.

We did most of our packing yesterday. My practice is to pack as much as possible the night before and then zip up the bags. Overnight, a miraculous compression occurs, and no matter how full the bag might have seemed, I can fit in the last odd articles like toothbrush and pyjamas. Neither E nor I bought stuff but the parka takes up space. In heroic packing achievement, I get down to two bags having come with three, and that's including the packed parka. My carry-on is all optics and things with plugs. When I open the duffel bag, a new universe will be born from the expansion of the matter within.

But you're not here to read about packing! Exotic locales are what this blog is about. The ship arrived in Murmansk on the morning tide, just as the Kapitan Khlebnikov had floated into Fremantle at the right moment---and these are icebreakers, which I think are relatively shallow-draft ships for their size, so getting the Russian Navy out of Murmansk must require some fine footwork. Tugboats arrive and push their bows against our ship's side to place it at the dock, just where it was before, next door to the Russian aircraft carrier which tourists are not supposed to photograph. We have some fairly stupid tourists in our group, though. This port is home to many icebreakers and it has a rather familial feel with all the unwieldy, square, squat ships---I am no expert, but I think a few of them were Sorokin-class siblings of Kapitan Khlebnikov---tied up along the docks and moored out in the river.

Some of our waiting is expedited by the ship's passenger clocks leaping ahead two hours just after breakfast. The crew runs on their own clock, Moscow time I believe, and does not participate in the finagling of time to make passengers comfortable. It is hardly necessary to have the difference---in the Arctic summer, the 24-hour light means that it does not matter which arbitrary moment you declare to be noon. The two-hour jump compresses time to lunch, also, which is served at 13:00 (new style). Before lunch, we give our luggage a last zip and leave it in the passageway outside the cabin. After lunch, which uses up half an hour, we wait and wait some more, and the buses to carry the passengers on an exciting city tour of Murmansk and its local museum arrive at last in stages, around 15:00 or 15:30.

While doing my share of waiting, I read a book from the ship's small and antique library, written by a Swedish-Finnish woman who had been married to a doctor who went to Greenland in the 1950's to do research on neuroses among the native Greenlanders, for example, fear of kayaks. Her author photo, posed glamorously in snow wearing formfitting white ski pants, white turtleneck, and white fur, with long dark hair blowing in the wind, is not at all what one might expect. (The title of this, if you care to look in the library, is A Doctor's Wife in Greenland.) She vacillates unpredictably between seeing the Inuit as people and seeing them as child-like or naive or innocent---her (and her husband's) psychological insights are locked in the academic psychology of their time, and it doesn't appear to occur to them that, for example, not dwelling on a failed hunt is a good thing in an environment where most hunts won't be successful.

Veterans of bus tours from the Fram trip last year, E and I are stoic as we climbed on the bus. We fail to notice at once that it was named "Sputnik," because we are saying goodbye. We are provisioned with chocolate, nuts, and snack bars from the stash we never ate our way through on ship, and though we have given away some of our embarrassing surplus of sugar and alcohol to needy expedition staffers we still have too much. As for the stoicism, we know that our charter flight is supposed to take off around 21:30 and figure we just had to endure until then.

It begins raining as the bus negotiates the port security. In vain we try to get the idiot on the bus filming the no photographing sign which is a camera with a red bar through it as well as the Russian Navy's aircraft carrier to stop doing that, as the whole party will be delayed if the security staff notices. Luckily the guards turn a blind eye, and we are soon at a memorial site dedicated to the siege of Murmansk, commemorating also Russia's twelve "Hero Cities" of the war---the cities that took the worst pounding and the worst losses. Plain and huge, a fine example of the Art Deco Soviet school, the statue with its eternal flame, wreaths, and simple row of plaques listing the city names is dignified and as monumental as the great loss of life in the siege deserves. It is nicknamed "Alyosha" and dates from 1985. On brighter days, the views from there must be grand, and the statue must be visible for miles. It is certainly not the worst memorial we have endured.

From the memorial, we're carried to the local Natural History Museum, which is like many other town museums. Our guide, Mike, begins by telling us that we can take off our clothes. Since his English is otherwise perfectly accurate, perhaps he was using that to get the group's attention? Mike collects about 25 passengers and sets off, and as we turned into the first hall of stuffed and mounted animals we are rushed by a group of about ten elderly women from the tour. It seems that the forty-five-minute interval between leaving the ship and arriving at the museum have been too long and all of them have to use the toilet, and as Sue Currie had warned that it might be a dreaded foreign one their needs must be genuine and dire. It puts me in mind of those Adélie penguins charging pell-mell through the emperor penguin colony in Antarctica. Once that is sorted, we carry on viewing the glass cases of elk, fox, wolverine, beaver, birds, and fishes. The museum has an interesting mineral collection, for those who like minerals; it includes examples all of the 1000 minerals found in the Murmansk district, and the guide said that 200 of those are endemic to the area, found nowhere else. We are extremely rushed in going through the collections, but it appears to be a good representation of the town's history; it includes what looked like sympathetic and accurate exhibits about the Sami and the Pomors and an exhibit about the war and the siege. On the ground floor is a show of recent photographs, which we have no time to study.

Certain passengers' enormous anxiety about meals and toilets is assuaged (remember, the passengers have eaten breakfast and then lunch two hours later) by the reason for the rushed museum visit: we are taken to a restaurant for "tea" in the English "substantial meal eaten at about 17:00" sense of "tea." The bus trundles through town (I am getting to know a certain supermarket, as it is a word I can spell out in Russian and we have passed it four or five times already) to a hotel. In parkas and fleece and carrying knapsacks, the untidy group traipses through the glossy lobby and down a little hallway into... into... well...

E and I are pretty sure it was a strip club. The glowing green sign beside the door forbids sneakers and guns.

The contrast between the passengers and the industrial, styled interior decor is hilarious. From an enormous buffet set up at the edge of the dance floor and along the bar, we eat delicious soup which has been sharpened with a shot of lemon or vinegar, little pancakes, and excellent black bread. Beating the rush, E and I make for the toilets, and then are able to authoritatively convince several others that they are foreign toilets and that payment is required for toilet paper. Very nicely done foreign toilets, we say, you know, all marble and nice materials but... but... Sue Currie has done half the work for us already in the previous day's briefing. They are ready to believe. The expressions on our victims' faces are worth the bus tour all by themselves.

After our meal, E and I spot strip clubby looking bars everywhere as the bus totes us along to the airport. (We have never been so ready to get to an airport in our lives.) Murmansk, the Norfolk of the North: full of young Navy guys looking for something to do in a few hours on the town. It seems to involve booze (available in kiosks at bus stops, with flowers and vibrantly-colored stuffed animals) and maybe a little electronics shopping.

The airport presents a wholly different face to departing passengers. It is arranged for painless waiting. Our checked bags have been effortlessly whisked from the ship to the airport, we do not need to claim them or take them through security or expend physical effort at all. We sit in chairs trying to get the advertised wifi to work (fail) and coveting the travel-sized roulette wheel in the gift shop (closed, fortunately). There is a nifty mural of sun and moon and planets and stars, which I forget to photograph in the excitement of getting into the queue for screening of carry-ons, check-in, passport control, and all that. When the incoming group of passengers arrives, to pass unseen through the other, Beckettish, side of the building, restlessness ripples through the departing herd. We sit in the departure lounge with some of buddies, swapping iPods randomly and admiring each others' taste in music (E knits simultaneously, so talented). Shockingly, contrary to his assertions, D does not have only Led Zeppelin on his iPod.

Our flight to Helsinki is brief and smooth, and our passage through the airport---thanks to the tour group dealing with the luggage---is also brief and smooth. From the bus, we glimpse a sunset of Assyrian splendor, purple and gold, with rays of orange light streaming in a semicircle. An hour after landing, E and I have our room, our internet connection, and our bags, have Skyped home, and are heading to the bar for a drink made out of raspberry vodka, with extra raspberries. We are relieved today is over. Nothing went wrong. But tomorrow is another day...

ETA: forgot to add that the hotel bar was amusing mainly because the TV was on, showing a Finnish Candid Camera program whose crux was unexpected female nudity. E and I laughed ourselves silly watching the American retirees' eyes get bigger and bigger as they encountered Television With Breasts Not On Pay Per View! Typical was a gym setup in which a very attractive blonde model, wearing a loose and unrevealing shirt apparently made out of a couple of kleenex (loose shoulder fastenings, no side seams), offered to play a ping-pong match with a succession of young male gym-goers. After a few volleys, a blast of air would come from somewhere and her shirt would blow off. Interestingly, the men almost invariably clutched their faces and covered their eyes, seared by the sight of boobies! The fact that the woman started laughing at them made them more comfortable and most managed to confront the breasts with direct gaze after steeling themselves. Similar tricks were played in a park at a "lottery machine" etc. Stupid show, but the perfect audience.


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July 2008

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