Friday, July 16, 2010

Postcard from Laguna South, Chkalovsk Region

I know I've been fawning so far. The parks, the transport, the people of Russia! So lovely and pristine. So heartbreakingly perfect. Ok, CP, we get it: Everything's better in Russia. And true enough, I'd been gobstopped. But I hadn't yet been to "Laguna South."

We'd gone by taxi about a half hour from the hydrofoil landing strip. We were to stay that night in a new eco-lodge being developed by Maxim (the Ayn Rand enthusiast of the last post) as part of the tourism effort in the region.

I suppose it was a beautiful place. I'm no real fan of river environments -- have always prefered oceans and lakes -- but this was a placid setting dotted with high-end cabins and all the amenities: Fluffy down pillows, European baths, exposed wood, air conditioning, bike rentals, and an authentic Japanese spa on the premises.

You may remember that a storm had knocked out all the power in the area, the lodge no exception. We hauled our luggage up flights of stairs in the dark, then pulled back the curtains to let the last glimpses of natural light into our rooms. No air conditioning, naturally, so we opened all the windows, enough for swarms of hungry mosquitos to fly in through missing screens. Down went the windows.

Then, an unwelcome discovery: The plumbing was all electronically controlled, so we had neither running water nor flushing toilets. We bought the last of the bottled water from the front desk and used it sparingly to wipe the stickiness from our skin, hopeful for plumbing by morning.

The hotel managed to get the generator going for an hour and decided to open the spa. Guests headed in droves to our only source of light and water, stripping down to Turkish towels (we Americans), bikinis (Russian women), and postage-stamp Speedos (Russian men of various shapes and sizes). A former member of the British Parliament -- also a proud misogynist -- who'd tagged along with us all the way from Golitsyno decided to tag his way into the spa, fully clothed to our various states of undress, and carrying a half dozen warm beers, which he proceeded to drink on his own when he didn't find any takers. That was our cue to beat it out of there, and we fled to our rooms for a decent night's sleep.

In the morning, I took a jog in the murky air and bumped into Raul, a member of our American delegation, who pointed out a single ramshackle building on the outskirts of the grounds with a family still living there.

"Hotel workers?" I asked him.

"I was thinking last hold-outs," he said.

It was so plainly obvious I just hadn't seen it. Families had lived on this land before, of course. This entire settlement was the probable result of several brokered deals and one that apparently wouldn't be brokered. The goats and chickens weren't authentic additions; they were the remains of the day.

We were still without plumbing, so I dabbed my skin with last night's damp towel -- my bottled water was gone -- then headed down for the day's agenda. After a few hours of meetings in stifling rooms, it was, at last, time to leave Laguna South. Several of our Russian coutnerparts were staying behind, and they waited with us for our delayed taxis, courteous to the last.

Oh, with one exception . . .

A high-ranking member of the Higher School of Economics, who'd traveled with us to the lodge, had been drinking for the last several hours. He tripped over himself and slurred in broken English, then gyrated his hips, making suggestive comments to us, the American women, who struck him as easy prospects.

Our taxis pulled up just as a storm moved into the area. We spent the next 90 minutes in a series of small, outdated sedans, drivers chain smoking and passing cars on the wrong side of the road, nearly hydroplaning through sheets of water as cars sped toward us the opposite direction.

"I'm going to die here," I thought. Here in the middle of rural Russia, with my last memory being the stench of unflushed toilets and the pelvic thrusts of a soused director.

Suffice it to say we broke open more than a few Russian beers and celebratory chocolate bars in the berth of our overnight train. St. Petersburg was yet ahead of us, and a shiner on the eye of the trip was now mercifully in the past.


tracy said...

Sticky and mosquitoes and sexists--but it makes a good story!

Rosemary said...

Oh, Maxim. That's what you get for reading too much Ayn Rand: the capitalist dream only works as long as the infrastructure (maintained by non-ubermensches) holds up!