Sleepless in Sheremetyevo

Moscow Sheremetyevo (SVO) Airport

I stand motionless as his eyes slowly close and his forehead tips slightly forward. I stare forward trying to remain calm. A bullet-proof pane of glass separates us. I am in a confining wood panel, aluminum, and glass enclosure with a small counter large enough to hand-over a passport and other important documents. My hands are folded on the counter in front of me. I am trying to clear immigration at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, Russia.

The Russian immigration officer catches himself nodding off. He snaps to attention. He looks at me to see if I noticed. I stare at him blankly trying to remain expressionless.

The immigration officer flips through the pages of my passport. He flips them back and forth, back and forth as if he expects a hidden surprise to jump out of the pages. He notices the page with my Russian visa and stops. He draws my passport towards his face so he can examine it closely. His hands lower. He starts to turn pages again. He stops at the data and signature page. Drawing his hands closer to his face, he examines the page. His fingers rub its edges and feel the laminated surface near my photograph. Briefly lowering his right hand, the officer grabs a small magnifying loupe. He searches for minuscule differences in the laminated, watermarked surface. Convinced the picture has not been replaced, he lowers his hands and places my passport in an electronic scanner. As the machine illuminates my printed face, his face shows signs of renewed weariness. The officer’s eyes slowly close to the rhythmic back-and-forth hum of the scanner. The light reflecting off his outstretched hand in the scanner contrasts with the dark bags under his eyes. Again, his chin drops, his eyes blink closed, and then, his head quickly snaps back. The officer wakes instinctively pulling his outstretched arm back towards his body and away from the scanner. He drops my passport. He looks at me suspiciously while he picks it up. I stand motionless with my hands still folded in front of me. Laughing to myself, I try to maintain my best poker face.

With renewed determination, the immigration officer resumes his work. He opens the data and signature page again. He runs his fingers over the image again to check for the same irregularities he already checked. He places my passport back in the scanner, and, this time, he remains awake long enough for the entire process to complete. After he types something in his computer, he takes my passport back in both hands and turns its pages again. He flips them back and forth, back and forth. He stops at my permanent residency permit for Germany. He looks me in the eyes. When the blank expression on my face fails to change, he looks back down and turns the pages again.

He stops at my Russian visa a second time. Drawing my passport closer to his face, he repeats the procedure: rub the page to check for irregularities, use a magnifying loupe to verify the authenticity of the photograph, check the watermarks, scan the page. This time, he is vigilant. With a razor-sharp expression on his face, he is determined to stay awake.

My hands start to sweat. I expect his interrogation to begin shortly.

The immigration officer looks at his computer. He looks at me. I assume he wants to stare me down before he starts with his list of prepared questions. Why are you traveling to Russia? What do you want to do in Pyatigorsk? What was the name of the ITAR/TASS journalist whose couch you slept on in 1994 after you drank too much Cognac? My mind invents probing questions while I wait. I quickly try to prepare myself. Aware of my rapid heartbeat, I take a deep breath to calm myself. I look at the officer in the eyes. His mouth opens. He says something. His words reach me in slow motion as I try to comprehend what he said.

“Xорошо, спасибо.” he mumbles.

I stare blankly.

With a quick double-flick of his wrist, he repeats the same words he just said. He adds another, “Давай, давай!”

I smile, take my passport from the counter, and say nothing in return. I take his advice and leave as fast as I can.

Inside Russia, a few steps away from the immigration officer, I quickly try to determine where to go. Yellow signs, the color of a bright crayon, direct traffic to the baggage claim area or to domestic flight transfers. I choose the second path blindly following the signs like Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road.

Sheremetyevo airport (SVO) in Moscow, Russia
Photo taken by Father Gaurav Shroff

I step on an escalator whose length seems in my early morning haze to equal the cavernous drop at Angel tube station in London. I regret my choice. I read the bilingual signs correctly. I followed instructions. Yet, for some unknown reason, the escalator brings me down to the baggage claim area.

I get my bearings straight and head towards an elevator, which should lead to my connecting flight. The elevator is out of service.

I follow the yellow signs to the airport exit. I leave the baggage claim area and head outside. Yellow signs in the long, crowded arrivals area show the way. I follow the signs passing taxi services, currency exchanges, fast food chains, and a surprisingly large number of people in the airport at 2 am in the morning.

I ride an escalator up to the domestic departures area. The hall is large. Passengers mill about like busy worker bees. Some wrap their suitcases in plastic wrap. Others spread out trying to sleep in the airport chairs.

I notice that the line at the security check point is extremely short. I take advantage of the opportunity and proceed.

An agent looks at my boarding pass and my passport. Like a Transportation Security Agency (TSA) screener, she barely blinks an eye while conducting the quick, repetitive formality. I pass with a single stroke of her hand.

A gaggle of middle-aged ladies stand in front of me. They struggle with their carry on luggage. They try to place their bags in gray plastic bins.

One of the women tugs at a flashy, brightly colored, high heel shoe. She tries to remove the shoe and cover her bare foot with a nylon sock. I give an exasperated look to the young, dark-haired agent who guards the entrance to the metal detector. She barks commands at the ladies who react slowly to her demands. The face of the young, well-groomed agent puckers in disdain; but, she manages to catch my astonished look. She smiles, winks me ahead of the ladies, and ignores the beeping sound the metal detector makes as I walk through the machine. She signals with her eyes for me to continue before she begins taunting the older, less attractive ladies with another round of verbal assault.

I head to my departure gate. Scouting the terminal along the way, I look for a bathroom and a place where I can exchange money. The shops and kiosks in the terminal are very small. They mainly sell glitzy jewelry. I find a Burger King at my gate. The restaurant is open, but I am not interested.

I scan the rows of empty seats at the gate in vain hope of locating my team members. I check for tell-tale signs: familiar clothing brands, hiking boots, or backpacks. I do not recognize anyone.

I turn and walk back in the direction I came. I am too excited to sleep. I still want to exchange euros for rubles.

I walk the length of the terminal. I find neither a currency exchange nor a bank machine.

I walk back to the security check point. I look for the young, sympathetic agent. Catching her eye a second time, I make a hand gesture trying to explain that I want to leave. She waves me through the security barrier. I smile, but she focuses her attention elsewhere.

The number of passengers in the departure hall has significantly increased. I pass huddled masses darting to-and-fro. I search for a currency exchange and quickly find one. The exchange rate is poor so I look for a better offer. Unfortunately, there are only two exchanges in the whole upstairs building. Both have poor exchange rates. I randomly pick one of the shops and exchange my money in the airport as per the suggestion of Jagged Globe.

With a pocketful of rubles, I head back to the security check point and quickly pass through a second time. The young, attractive, dark-haired agent is nowhere to be found. Her replacement, a heavy-set, middle-aged, stereotypical Russian woman, can’t be bothered by the beeping sound the metal detector makes when I pass through it.

Back in the gate area, I look for a seat where I can take a nap. I find a row of empty seats near a jewelry kiosk. A light blonde sales agent multitasks. She polishes her display case in between the silent, illuminated prompts flashing on her smart phone. Her activity reminds me to check my messages. I turn on my iPad and search for a wireless network. The airport’s free network requires a telephone number. I provide a random set of numbers hoping to circumvent the security precaution. My trick fails to work.

I turn off my iPad and relax in the waiting area. I watch the handful of passengers from my comfortable perch. I assume most of the awaiting passengers are Russian. Two Japanese backpackers are one exception. I also distinguish a small group of visitors from Kazakhstan whose luggage tags give their nationality away. I visually search for my British teammates as a wave of sleep overtakes my body. It is past 3 am in Moscow, and my connecting flight is scheduled to depart in four hours.

I wrap the straps of my backpack around my legs and check to see if the girl at the jewelry kiosk maintains her lonely watch.

My eyes blink close. I think about the immigration officer and my eyes shut again. I relax. My shoulders drop. My head tilts forward. I fall asleep.

The alarm on my watch beeps like an annoying mosquito. My reaction to the alarm is slow. I catch the glance of an awaiting passenger, who smirks at me, before I realize my alarm is still beeping.

I turn off the alarm, rub my eyes, and look around. The girl at the jewelry kiosk is still at her post. She sees me looking and smiles at me. I return the smile wondering if I have drool on my shirt or if I was snoring loudly.

I check my backpack and discreetly rub my waist to see if my money belt is still in place. Everything is fine. Travel warnings about Sheremetyevo aside, I overreact as usual.

I head to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. I fill my water bottle at a fountain. The enticing aroma of coffee waifs in my direction, but I walk directly to my gate. I want to sleep on the connecting flight. Caffeine would only keep me awake.

I approach the gate and look in around for my teammates. I see a man with a golden ponytail in a British Mountaineering Club (BMC) sweatshirt. He rummages in a Black Diamond backpack. I approach him an tentatively ask if his name is Olan. Indeed it is. I found our guide.

I introduce myself, and we quickly get lost in polite conversation.

Minutes later, two backpacking Frenchmen, Alain and Xavier, approach us. They ask if we are part of the Jagged Globe team. We nod and start another round of introductions.

The gate area quickly fills as our flight to Mineralnye Vody starts to board. Joining the huddled masses, Olan points out five more team members. They approach, shake our hands, and politely head to the back of the queue. Introductions will have to wait. They are proper Brits who don’t jump the queue.

Mineralnye Vody (MRV) Airport

Mineralnye Vody (MRV) Airport

We arrive in Mineralnye Vody after a 2:15 hour flight. The terminal is small, but the baggage claim area is even smaller.

We huddle together in the sweltering, overcrowded area. We introduce ourselves to each other while we wait for our luggage to arrive. We are eleven participants in total: two Frenchmen, two Poles, five Brits, an American (myself), and an Indian, who we meet later at our hotel. Our guide, Olan, an Irish expat, is joined by two Russian guides, Alexander (Alex or Sasha) and Constantine.

We retrieve our luggage and load the heavy kit bags in a minivan. We finally leave for our hotel in Piatygorsk.


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