– Check out Inked and Abroad’s previous Russian adventures here –
“You are sick” the Chinese airport official repeated. “And this is quarantine”.
I’d only left Sydney 10 hours ago. En route to Russia to find my brother for the upcoming Confederations Cup football tournament. I hadn’t felt so ill back then. But here, in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, I could barely stand up.
“There must be a mistake with your body scanner” I implored. “I’m fine”. The fear of missing my connecting flight outweighing any health concerns. But apparently shrugging your shoulders and giving double thumbs up like the Happy Days episode where Fonzie gets shipped off to China isn’t convincing enough. With my faux confidence failing there was no choice but to test my temperature again. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied trying not to pass out I might have wondered if the thermometer sticking out from under my arm was a fresh one. She definitely picked it up off a desk. Not a super sterile space, but I had something else on my mind anyway. See, I once read you can trick a polygraph machine through sheer force of will. That these machines, more commonly known as ‘lie detectors’, can be beaten if your mind is strong enough.
And so, I applied that same logic to the (probably pre-used) thermometer I had under my wing. 37 degrees. 37 degrees. 37 degrees. My powers of concentration were so finely in tune with my vision. That my temperature would have stabilised and I’d be able to leave and get that next flight on towards Russia. It truly is amazing what you can achieve when you put your mind to it. When you really focus on what you want to happen. I don’t think science can even explain it. It’s almost spiritual when it happens.
And wouldn’t you just know it. It didn’t come close to working. 39.8 degrees Celsius. Fuck.
“You’ve been bitten by Mosquito, haven’t you?” came the follow up to my sweat inducing core reading. “Zika”.
Zika? Have we not moved on from that yet? There’s always something capturing the global attention of the world’s health authorities. If it’s not Zika it’s swine flu. Or bird flu. Or fidget spinners.
I told her my story. That I’d been a little under the weather the previous week but it was nothing serious. When it comes to authority though, there’s natural scepticism. I get it. It’s like a driver telling a cop he’s only had “one or two” beers. The risk of waving that driver back onto the road and watching him jack-knife into a school bus of underprivileged orphans on the way to a Justin Bieber concert means you must do your due diligence. And it was the same here in Chinese quarantine.
With my threat to the wider Chinese population yet to be established I was forced to empty the entire contents of my bag. An act made more embarrassing when I took out an adult colouring in book and a pack of 30 assorted pens. I get a little anxious on planes, okay? And colouring in books help calm me down. But to her I was just a sweating man-child who shouldn’t have been let out of day-care, let alone Australia. Despite my embarrassment however, my questionable colouring in wasn’t her concern. Instead, she took every document I had – passport, tickets, itineraries and all.
“You cannot bring a communicable disease into China” she said through her crisp facemask, like Darth Vader’s daughter who turned down the dark side to attend nursing school. Kicking off our very own Mexican stand-off. Or Chinese stand-off, as it were. She wanted blood samples. They’d test them, let me on my way, then reach out to me when the results were in. If I had any form of communicable disease I was to go straight to hospital in Russia. If I didn’t go straight to hospital, and prove it by having a Russian doctor contact them, then I would face three years in Chinese prison.
No thank you. Unsubscribe. Not interested.
I’ve had a few blood tests in my time. During my seven month stay at Hotel Hospital I became something of an expert in blood retrieval. But getting jabbed by a Chinese customs official, for an illness that I was certain was not Zika, was not on my radar. Her offer was declined.
“Then you won’t leave quarantine” came the reply. And she left it at that. Sitting down behind a desk and scribbling away at paperwork while I sat, surrounded by my scattered belongings, somewhere in the recesses of Guangzhou airport, weighing up my options.
Travel isn’t amazing all the time. If it was, you’d never appreciate just how fortunate you are to fly around the world. To embrace distinctly different cultures and meet people that you’d otherwise never have the chance to meet. It’s a reality of travel that, at times, you’ll feel underwhelmed, disappointed or, as was my case, lost. I’d saved up for over 6 months, punishing my sleep pattern and social life with regular night shifts behind the bar. And on DAY ONE I was sitting in Chinese quarantine, feeling too ill to walk, with tears welling up in my eyes.
This anthology of stories is written in hindsight of course. So, I did eventually make it out of Chinese quarantine and on to Russia without missing my connecting flights. After bargaining my captives down from a blood test to a throat swab and signing a form almost exclusively in Chinese – an agreement I’d face prosecution if I didn’t go to hospital, I was released back into the general population.
In retrospect, I just needed something to look forward too. Something to focus my attention on. A light at the end of the tunnel. Something to take away the pain. And that thing, was Raj.
He was in his mid-30’s. With that mythical combination of hair that’s long and somehow balding at the same time. He was short and portly, like a cartoon professor, and with all the real-world wisdom to match. An Indian national, he was born in Mumbai. Although he refused to call it that. He loved its original name of Bombay, saying the name change was political correctness gone mad. Truthfully, it was tough to pinpoint what he was doing in a youth hostel in St. Petersburg. In his words, he’d worked and travelled all over the world. While his last “business venture”, a term he threw around often and without particularly accurate contextual boundaries, had seen him in Dubai for the past year.
But it didn’t matter why he was here, just that he was here. And like serendipitous best mates from across the globe we hit the streets of St. Petersburg. Raj, with a jumper tied around his waist like it was his first day at Harvard and I, glistening in the Northern Hemisphere sun with my ever-present temperature.
"I must have a comb!" - Raj
The reason for our adventure? Raj needed a comb. He felt his hair wasn’t up to standard and, in his words, “Russian women, but especially Russian men, have a great fashion sense. If I am to be accepted here I MUST have a comb”.
We had an odd cause and we were an odd couple. Yet, here we were jauntily sauntering down St. Petersburg’s three-hundred-year-old main drag. There weren’t many (see: any) other Indians around so we turned a few heads and copped a few glares, but Raj never batted an eyelid. And, despite my waning health it felt only right to stop and enjoy an authentic Russian breakfast on our first day in St. Petersburg. A cosmopolitan city, St. Petersburg has no shortage of eateries. So, it didn’t take long before we found the perfect venue. Blazing in the front door with all the confidence you’d expect of two world travellers (although slightly less confidence than we might have had if Raj owned a comb) we asked for a menu and a seat. The place was packed. So, we knew we were onto a winner as the server approached us.
“I’m sorry” he bristled, his Russian accent as strong as our desire to find hair accessories. “We are closed”.
“Closed?” came a confused reply from Raj. “We can see you’re full of people”.
“No. For you, we are closed”.
Now I’ve lived a largely fortunate life. Apart from that time I got Leukaemia. But being a white bloke from Australia has left me with less of the burden to bear when it comes to discrimination. To see what appeared a very blatant display of racism against my new mate Raj was confronting. It was bad enough I wasn’t going to get to try Russian Cabbage Pie and Borscht – a Russian beetroot soup that is presumably named after the noise you make when you try it.
But to have poor Raj rejected just because he was born in Mumbai (dammit, Bombay, sorry Raj) was not on. It’s just not cricket!
From that moment on Raj and I had irrevocably bonded. We eventually found his comb. And if Raj was any indication, racism can be solved simply by finding a bloody good comb at an unbeatable rate of Roubles. He was stoked. And his hair was slick. Looking back on my various trips overseas I’ve realised that it really is the people you meet that shape your experience, rather than the places you go. I barely had the strength to walk at points and while I literally sat on the street to rest, Raj was right there with a water bottle and a smile, happy to wait until I was back on my feet so our adventures could continue.
If I had to choose one adventure to share, one that stands out in the days since our comb fuelled racism dodging days in St. Petersburg, it would involve Raj and his love of women. Specifically, those employed in the world’s oldest profession. Raj, to his eternal credit, adored prostitutes.
With the flick of a finger on his phone he’d found the nearest ‘massage parlour’ and was on his way. He’d asked me to come with him and I had hoped to. If not to just sit in the waiting room of a Russian massage parlour and see how long it would take before they kicked me out. But with my health in a constant state of flux (fluctuating between searing temperatures and bone chilling freezes) I had to decline.
“Are you sure?” Raj pressed, “I’d love to share this with you”.
And while that sentence could have been taken in so many ways considering where he was going, I’d be sitting this play out.
A few hours later, although it felt much longer in my 12-person mixed dorm somewhere in a crumbling Soviet style safehouse turned hostel, Raj returned. He was glowing. The way a man does when he’s traded the pleasures of his wallet for the pleasures of the flesh. And in that inimitable Raj way delivered a line that never fails to crack me up, “Alex, I met someone”.
Raj, mate, you met someone in the same way the Chinese quarantine official and I met each other. Just because she put her fingers inside me for a throat swab didn’t make what we had real. But Raj, indefatigable to a fault, was bullish.
“No, No Alex” he insisted. “A massage was all we’d agreed on. But after a while she said she wished we could have sex. She showed me a hotel on her phone and asked me to book it, but it was too expensive. So, I said, ‘why don’t we just have sex here?’ and she agreed!”
His logic was as patchy as his hair.
“Raj” I replied, “you just said it was her idea to have sex”
“Ah yes” Raj countered, with all the wisdom of Yoda teaching Luc about prostitutes in a galaxy far, far away. “But it was MY idea to skip the hotel!”
Raj was a man of substance and style. And if he found his purest joy in Eastern European sex workers than more power to him. Although we parted ways as my travels took me from St. Petersburg down to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, I’ll never lose an image of him. Forever burnt into my mind, as he held his mobile phone at arm’s length. A smile to put the Cheshire cat to shame etched on his joyous face. The picture on the screen, of a fully naked Raj with his arm around a fully naked Russian prostitute who was clearly trying to stop him from taking photos. One arm shielding her face, the other attempting to block the camera.
He asked me if I thought they made a good couple. It was obvious to everyone but Raj that the relationship was no more than an excess of money from one partner. And a desperate need for money from another. But having watched him search all over one of Europe’s most historically beautiful cities just for a comb, dodging casual racism with a smile and bending over backwards to make sure I was rested and hydrated in my ill health, there was only one thing I was ever going to say.
“Mate, you two make a bloody great couple”.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Inked and Abroad’s Russian Odyssey continues when the beautiful history of St. Petersburg is replaced with the spectres of the past in Sochi where haunted mansions come to life.