Finally it was the day to leave for India. The days have gone by so quickly, interspersed as it was with some tensions and stresses, and I felt I should have driven onwards to Finland and all of Scandinavia! The white nights in St Petersburg light up the skyline quite early and so it was this day with the early part of the day being bright and sunny. The wind was tolerable and hence, I stood relaxing in the balcony for some time taking in the skyline and wondering if I will ever have another opportunity to come back to this city. I get this thought every time I leave a place I stay overnight or spend enjoyable time in. A city that my mind goes to without a prod and immediately is Cobb in Ireland. The halt in that city had been just a couple of hours during the London drive, but the amazing city, loving people and great hospitality made the visit memorable and yearn for a leisurely visit sometime in the future.
I am maniacal when it comes to packing. Major part of the luggage had already been packed in the bags that would get to India in the car. I had segregated items and packed in such a way that I would be carrying just a couple of small duffels and a laptop bag. Even then I had to take things out, wonder if that was in the right bag and then rearrange some more till I had no more time to do all that in the flat. Truly, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. I had arranged with the owner of the flat to hand over the key of the flat at noon, over the booking site. I was told that the person who had come to hand over the key to me would take it over too. Hence, I prepared for the noon rendezvous after a lazy and long hot shower. The toilet kit and the flip flop were the last items that took their appointed places in one of the duffel bags.
Exactly at the stroke of noon the bell to the apartment rang and a roly poly lady with a most engaging smile explained that she had been deputed to collect the key from me. It is not as if I understood what she said, but the gestures and general demeanor made me realise that. She was carrying a few items to clean the flat and I knew that she was discharging a dual responsibility that morning. She quickly went around the flat to assess if any damage had been done to the flat that may require additional payment from me. She found all was in order and said so. I collected my bags and, wistfully, handed over the key and stepped out of the flat. Initially, I had been apprehensive about the place I had chosen to stay in the city. But in time I knew that HE had guided me to the right one. The container terminal, where the Champion was handed over, had been quite close to the apartment. The Metro station was less than a five minute amble from the complex, which could take me to any part of the city quickly and affordably. It was the Metro I intended to take this afternoon to the bus stand that would cart me to the Pulkova international airport.
As I was waiting to hand over the apartment the weather, that had been sunny, turned to being cloudy and it also started drizzling. In the past three weeks in the country I realized that it did not take long for the weather to change from the cheerful to the gloomy. Talk about ‘typical English weather’ and you find it in Russia! The light rain did not affect my walk, with the bags, to the Metro station. I reached the Zvozdnaya Metro station soon enough and took the steep escalator to reach the platform. The Moskovskaya Metro station, from where I would get a direct bus to the airport, was just a stop away. When I exited that station the rain had become a bit heavier and I virtually ran to the bus shelter across the road. It was a virtual run because, these days, it’s only the mind that races, the feet plod along lazily.
I did not have to wait long for the bus to the airport. Since that was the first stop there was enough room for luggage and enough seats for passengers. Traffic was light and, therefore, I reached the airport in about a half hour. The journey from the apartment to the airport had taken less than an hour and cost only RUB 65 – INR 72! It had been comfortable too. I had been told that a taxi ride could cost anywhere from 500 to 1000 RUB depending on the type of cab I took! I walked into Pulkova 1 terminal, the only functional terminal now, four hours ahead of the scheduled departure of the Emirates flight at 5 pm. My intention was to check in the baggage and explore the Duty Free shops at leisure. Those plans were struck a lethal blow when I was informed that the counter would open only by 3 pm! I had two hours to kill. Undeterred I switched plans - finalise documentation over a cup of coffee in a terminal restaurant. I got one of the duffel bags shrink wrapped and moved around to locate a place to sit and have a cup of coffee. I walked all around and discovered to my dismay that there were no seats to sit or any restaurants to relax till the counters opened. Machines vended beverages, hot and cold. I boycotted them and found a steel railing at ankle high to perch precariously, shifting weight regularly on the behind – lest that part of the body go to sleep. In that uncomfortable position I sat and watched ‘life’ in the airport. People with sad faces, those with cheerful countenances, people with aged companions who required help, those with toddlers who couldn’t manage on their own, people who were leaving their homeland, those who were returning to their own, people weighed down by huge pieces of luggage, those who traveled light, people traveling with their loved one, those who were travelling alone – all the different facets and stages of life made often for a thoughtful collage at that sparse Pulkova 1 international airport terminal. At times it was entertaining too. My perch was not far from the washrooms. The way people made their way to them, I thought, displayed the urgency of the visit. Some of them could not hide their distress while most took the stress in their stride!
The Emirates counters were in my line of sight and by a quarter to three I perceived some activity there. It was time to stretch my legs and I made my way to the head of one of the counters and was told that the counter would open shortly. It did and I was relieved of the bags that were booked through to Cochin. I was handed over the boarding passes for St Petersburg and Dubai. I was awfully hungry by the time I competed the security check. I had a small water bottle of premixed vodka in the laptop bag and that was, to my dismay, banned for carriage beyond the security area. I parted with that sadly and moved in search of a restaurant. I found one and decide to kill some time there. I ordered a ham omlette wrap and cold coffee, which the waitress told me would take about 20 minutes. I had more than 60 minutes to board. The Duty Free shops didn’t seem interesting enough to warrant extra time.
Once the excellent wrap and the huge cup of cold coffee were savored and disposed of I sauntered through the duty free picking up chocolates and a bottle of Beluga vodka. But what arrested my attention was the price of Russian Standard vodka. I had bought a 1 litre bottle of that spirit in Omsk for about $8. In the Duty Free shop at the airport it was priced at $25! I kicked myself for not having picked up a few more bottles from Omsk. By the time I boarded the flight to Dubai I had exhausted the entire stock of RUB.
I had a pre-booked aisle seat. This is another change that has come over me with age – I don’t know if it does with others. Even on long international flights I loved to hog the window seat in the younger days. The changing hues of the sky fascinates me. Once I got on to the wrong side of 50 toilet visits became inevitable in flights that were more than an hour long. That could be done without annoying or disturbing co-passengers only if I was seated in one of the aisle seats. I was happy with the seat I had for the 7 hour flight to Dubai. The middle and window seats were taken by a middle aged couple, evidently travelling home after a holiday. The flight didn’t seem to be full and soon after takeoff I slipped into a deep sleep. I was keen to wake up in time for dinner. In fact, my nose woke up first – the aroma of food and beverages brought me back from a dream filled sleep. I sought a peg of Glenfiddich on ice and kept sipping on that through the chicken meal. Just a packet of bun remained to polish off the meal. The specially packaged bun remained stubborn through many attempts to open it. Finally I decided to poke it with the knife, holding it firmly in my hand. The Glenfiddich induced poke produced the most humorous after effects. The special package opened with the sound of a pistol going off inside the aircraft. Not only did the sound not alarm me; I saw concerned faces all around. It did not stop at that. The bun instantly rolled out of its cocoon and thudded into the half finished peg of Glenfiddich, spilling the whiskey on my shirt and trousers. A few ice cubes decided to cool a certain part of the body between the legs! After doing all that mischief the bun rolled under my feet and out of sight. The wreck that the blessed bun left in my attempt to eat it was a massive blow to the ego rather than the need to finish the meal. The couple who were peacefully having their meals next to me sought to soften the blow by offering me one of their buns! With that incident the meal and drink were over, rather abruptly. To get over the discomfort of wet clothes and a cooled extremity I sought refuge in Bajirao Mastani. The excellent acting and superb direction made me soon forget the disaster and inconvenience.