It has always been Patty's dream to visit Russia - and now the dream is coming true! We will spend 14 days on a "Waterways of the Tsars" cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow starting on 23rd June 2010.
Photo from Viking Cruises - www.vikingrivercruises.com
Friday, July 9, 2010
Day 13: Last day - on our way home
It is customary to give gratuities, or tips, to the staff of the Viking Kirov. The management suggest $10 - $12 per guest per day which is distributed amongst the staff. They also suggest a separate tip of about $5 per guest per day for the guides. Then you can tip the bus drivers, the porters, the crew etc., Patty and I tipped the bus drivers separately because they were the ones who handled the wheelchair every day. So, after 12 days on the boat you should allocate about $144 (about R1000) for the staff and and $60 (R455) for the guides.
(We jokingly said that if we offered Mikhail $5 for every time he helped with the wheelchair he would have got an empty envelope!) They give you envelopes to put the tips in and Patty and I put our tips in envelopes for the staff and guides and handed them in at the reception desk.
Over and above that, you can give individual tips to individual staff members. Last night we gave envelopes with tips to our favourite staff. In the dining room our favourite was Benz - a wonderful man who looked after us from day one in the dining room. Always pleasant and welcoming, never impatient with the wheelchair and POC and never in a hurry to get us out of there. He is married with two children and spends six months of the year away from his family working on the Viking boats (as many of the staff from the Philippines do). Mateo, also one of the waiters, made us laugh every day and called Patty's chair her 'Ferrari'. Paul - a waiter with an elegant, charming manner carved flowers in a cake of soap for Patty and me. One of the Filipino waitresses went the extra mile and we gave her an extra tip too. Joy - the Panorama Bar hostess, always willing to fetch an extra cup of tea or hot chocolate. "You sit down and relax" she'd say with a smile, "I'll bring it to your table." Dieter, the Hotel Manager, was excellent - a caring man, always willing to listen and to please, who managed to chat to every passenger on board and did the rounds every night. He very kindly arranged with the chef, Thomas, to keep every menu for me. Thomas compiled a little booklet of menus in a cardboard cover and personally brought it to the cabin yesterday. I was so thrilled I gave him a hug! This morning we had to put our suitcase outside the cabin by 8h30 so we did most of the packing last night. We managed to get all the souvenirs and gifts into Patty's cabin bag which I hung over the back of the wheelchair. At 9am we boarded our bus for the airport (there are 5 airports in Moscow). Vitoria - one of the guides - accompanied us. She thought the trip might take two hours but the traffic wasn't too bad and after 1.5 hours we arrived at the airport. The airport looked like a gigantic hot house - a long tubular structure made of glass panels.
The bus driver made a sharp turn to get to a boom and scraped the front of a car that was in that lane. The driver got out and there was much shouting and waving of arms. We all had to get out and drag our luggage through the booms to the airport building. There are no porters at the Moscow airport and, we found out later, no toilets for disabled people. When we asked for a toilet for Patty they ended up taking us through to the train station arrivals lounge where there was a special toilet for wheelchair users.
Our plane only left at 14h40 so we bought a few gifts in the Duty Free - including two beautiful bottles of Vodka. The bottles look like the Matrioshka dolls and cost about R250 each. At Zurich airport we had an even longer wait but the assistants took us to a special lounge for passengers needing assistance which was close to the Duty Free shops. We bought a lovely jacket for Emily, some t-shirts for the Leaver boys and more fridge magnets. I was able to send an email home from the Internet cafe and we had a sandwich and a cold drink before going back to the lounge.
When it was time to go through the boarding gates, I was stopped and they searched the bag with the gifts in it. I was told that I couldn't take the Vodka Bottles through. He said they would have to be discarded but when I told him I'd bought them mainly for the bottles, he offered to empty the Vodka and give me the bottles. So our children received gifts of empty vodka bottles from Russia! He told me that Russia was not a Schengen country and that was why (even though they'd been bought at a Duty Free shop and were in a sealed packet) we couldn't take them through. He also said that if they had been bought at a place like Singapore, he might have allowed them through but he couldn't let anything like that through from Russia. It might have something to do with the fact that there is a huge Russian Mafia and they don't trust anyone - not even a couple of old grannies!
Our flight left Zurich at 22h45 and dinner was brought around at 12h45. I watched 'Valentine's Day' until my eyes closed and I couldn't concentrate anymore.
We arrived in Johannesburg at 9am and there was an assistant waiting with Patty's chair. He took us through the customs and to the carousel to collect our suitcase. Gail (sister-in-law) was waiting for us at the arrivals and we went upstairs to have a coffee and eventually lunch as our Mango flight to Durban was only at 13h20. We were helped by Mango staff and were the last to board - our seats being right in the front.
It was great to land in Durban and see Finn waiting for us at arrivals. Tammy soon arrived with Emily and it was lovely to hold her again. We took Patty home and helped her unpack and then went home ourselves. Carling and Jenna were really pleased to see me and it was great to be home.
I couldn't believe that we got everything into the little black cabin bag, including the big winter jacket Finn had lent me. The bag only weighed 8kg when we left but was 14kg when we checked it in at Moscow airport. After breakfast, Syl and I stood on the deck looking at the river and the buildings on the Moscow skyline. I'd brought one of the Pips from Shaun's navy jacket to leave in Moscow and this seemed a suitable time and place to let go of the Pip. "Well, Shauny" I said, "We brought you to Russia and now we are going to leave a memento here." Syl threw the Pip as far as she could into the water and we watched as the ripples spread across the water. Then she smiled. "I can just hear him laughing" she said. He is saying, "Are you f........ crazy? I wouldn't come here with you two. No way! You'd drive me crazy." I laughed too. "I can hear him saying, " and why did you trow my bloody Pip into the river? How can I wear that jacket if I come back?" We hugged each other, knowing that we had done the right thing.
(Dieter, Nadia and Maria)
On the way to the airport, I was struck once again by how clean the streets are. There is no litter and no graffiti - not even on bare walls along highways. The Russians must be very strict about littering and defacing buildings. One thing I've learned is that they are not interested in making their cities accessible for the disabled. There were very few ramps off pavement or at intersections, most of the buildings are not accessible and don't have ramps or lifts. And, when they told us that there was no toilet for disabled people I felt like strangling someone. I'm not usually in a wheelchair but my nephew is and I can imagine how frustrating it would be for him to visit Russia. My feet and ankles had started swelling by the time we got on the Moscow to Zurich flight and when we got into the special waiting room at Zurich airport, Syl made me put my feet up. Eventually I lay down across three seats to rest awhile. It was a long wait for the 22h45 departure.
I find the seats in aeroplanes very uncomfortable. I want to sit upright but they make you lounge over and I felt as though I was squashing my ribcage and my lungs. The best way to sit was to lean on the folded down tray and rest my head on the TV on the back of the seat in front. About an hour before landing I was gat-vol and wanted out of that plane!
When I got off the plane in Johannesburg, I looked as though I had elephantitis, my legs were so swollen. It felt like the skin wanted to crack. It was great to have Gail's company at the airport. On the Mango flight they put us right in front so there was lots of room to stretch our legs. Finn was waiting for us at the new Durban airport and I was so grateful to be home, all I wanted to do was put my head down and sleep. Syl unpacked everything and sorted things out on the dining room table.
It's hard to process how I feel. I can't believe I did it - I went to Russia! After all the years of saying that I wanted to go, Shaun putting money aside for me, my health deteriorating until I thought I might never go, and now I have finally been. And, the best thing of all, I went with my sister! How special is that?