A journey to Russia through the eyes of a Jamaican

Marley, Bolt still large, structures breathtaking; but food hard to digest


Sunday, June 24, 2018

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MOSCOW, Russia — The world's largest country by area — Russia — possibly remains one of the countries that people, particularly Jamaicans, may not have on their bucket list to visit.

However, with the 2018 World Cup being held in major cities in the country, many, especially football fanatics, would be enticed to endure the nine-hour and few minutes flight from New York, travelling a distance of over 11,000 kilometres, just to be able to experience what has been dubbed the greatest sporting event on Earth.

With a total area of 17,075,400 square kilometers, Russia covers more than a ninth of the Earth's land area and is 1.8 times larger than the total size of the United States.

Journalists who arrived at staggered times in the land known, among other things, for its vodka — after an invitation from Russian gas giant company Gazprom International to cover its annual Football for Friendship programme targetting children across the world — fell in love with the country's diverse culture, language and extremely polite people in the capital city of Moscow — an architectural haven.

By contrast to Jamaica, the land, though extremely cold, was green, and there were signs of First World prosperity throughout the capital.

The journey

En route to the destination there seemed to be little anxiety on the packed Aeroflot flight which departed John F Kennedy Airport two hours later than originally scheduled. Passengers seemed unfazed by the waiting time and distance to be covered, something that was very unfamiliar to me, especially as I was the only black person on the plane.

The all-female flight attendants, decked in bright orange uniforms with their hair in low buns, made sure that all on board were as comfortable as they could be.

There was not much to do, apart from sleep, on a journey laced with a skilfully crafted entertainment package. And even if you thought of catching a nap, you would have to select the most opportune moment so as to not be awakened by crying babies.

After what seemed like an eternity, at long last Moscow was in sight. But something was missing. As the pilot landed the aircraft, there was deafening silence. Not one person clapped as is the norm when a plane lands in Jamaica. None even made an attempt to. Talk about culture shock! I was already an anamoly just by being black. I decided that being the only black person, I would not clap while the craft touched down at Sheremetyevo International Airport.

To my surprise, I came through immigration hassle-free as there was no immediate language barrier or any other hold-up. I was able to communicate with officers in English and vice versa, and I was not given a hard time by virtue of my complexion. During the flight I had a constant feeling of trepidation after being prepared by an American border control officer in New York who warned me about racial issues.

The officer, who first spoke to me in an American accent, code switched to Jamaican Creole and pointed to his black skin and said: “You see dis? Me haffi go patois to you; be careful.”

He then proceeded to tell me about travel advisories that, according to him, had been issued in regard to racial issues.

At that point, I quickly categorised his comment as one not to be taken as gospel and one not to be outrightly ruled out as well. There my journey had begun.

Volunteers on a bus provided by Gazprom's Football for Friendship were waiting to transport me to the Izmailovo Hotel and inform me of the week's activities.

Jamaica's culture

A common experience I had, no matter where in Moscow I went, was what Jamaica was known for, not only by the Russians, but other countries.

Every time I told people I was from Jamaica, their first reaction would be: “Jamaica! Bob Marley, Usain Bolt!” There were a few people, mostly from African countries, who were able to not limit Jamaica's musical culture to Bob Marley. Some asked about artistes who were still in the music business and as it turns out, very popular in African countries such as Alaine, Ce'cile and Busy Signal.

Kenya's Ambassador to Russia Hillary Kyengo, who I met, also cited his love for Jamaican music as well as Bolt, and described Jamaicans as a very warm and friendly people. He also added that he had met Prime Minister Andrew Holness at the recently concluded G7 Summit where diplomatic relations were discussed, and disclosed that he had high hopes that the relationship between Kenya and Jamaica would improve.

Russian Cuisine

What would be very striking for any well-bred Jamaican would be Russia's cuisine and the seemingly prominent habit of smoking.

Finding well-cooked meals that were simultaneously palatable and could soothe one's taste buds and appease an empty stomach proved to be an uphill battle during the stay. The meat, no matter what kind, I found to always be undercooked to the point where I developed a genuine phobia of eating food in the country. The taste for me could be equated to the social media reference of “raisins in potato salad”, and when it was time for meals, my mantra became, “I'm good, Love, enjoy”.

Interestingly, despite the taste of the food, Moscow has many restaurants and deli-like stores. I was convinced that the city has the Colonel's formula as there are a lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlets. At one point, I saw two only a few metres apart. Additionally, there are also many Burger King and McDonald's restaurants.

I also found noteworthy the price of food. When quoted in Rubles, the official currency, items might seem expensive, but when converted to US dollars I realised that things there were fairly cheap.

There was also a variety of vodkas to choose from as the popular alcoholic drink is made traditionally from the distillation of fermented potatoes. Beer and teas are also widely consumed, which one can assume results in establishments like Burger King opting to sell both beverages.

Russia's infrastructure and architecture

Common in Russia, as with many other European countries, are high-rise buildings. But what is noteworthy about the ones I saw in Moscow is their seemingly rich abundance of history. In addition to this, the many historical statues found in the city stood out.

One of great importance for me was the Peter the Great statue, as there were Jamaican flags raised on different sections of the monument. At 322 feet tall, it's the eighth-tallest statue in the world — the tribute to the great Russian leader is viewed as more of an enormous riverside eyesore than a fitting tribute to a legendary emperor.

Located at the western confluence of the Moskva River and the Vodootvodny Canal in central Moscow, the not-so-great statue may not have even been made to honour Peter the Great at all, as it has been rumoured that it was actually created as a tribute to Christopher Columbus to mark the 500th anniversary of his first voyage.

According to the rumours, the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli couldn't find an American buyer for the work, so his friend and former mayor of Moscow commissioned the piece. It was reworked to represent the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy founded by Peter the Great and was finally erected in 1997.

Another breathtaking monument was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, originally built in 1931. This newly restored example came into being from 1994 until 2000, and it is a shiny beacon for the Russian Orthodox Church at home and a close replica of the original 19th century cathedral built in honour of the victory over Napoleon. The cathedral, the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world, houses a museum on the history of the site where you can see pictures of the giant swimming pool the Soviets built and the huge Lenin-topped skyscraper they had originally planned for.

In terms of shopping, the Izmailovsky Market was one of the best bets. Whether looking for ancient relics or traditional Russian souvenirs, the market had it all — from Soviet paraphernalia, badges, winter shawls, fur hats, postcards, books, old electronics, watches, to quick bites if you get famished during all the shopping.

Much like downtown Kingston, one is able to “bawl” down the prices to which a vendor will promise you that is his/her special to you for the day.

The long days — going up to 11:00 pm when the sun decides to take a rest — and short nights, when the sun pops up again shortly after 3:00 am, were also other eye-openers.

After all that, it was then on to the business at hand — covering the Football for Friendship tournament — a prelude to witnessing the greatest show on earth — and that, itself, proved to be a fine spectacle.

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