Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Day 9: Murmansk five oh

I drive around for a while in the morning, stopping every now and then to shoot. People seem perplexed by this camera, but I haven't had any contact with the police yet (Are, back in Vardø, warned me to expect to pay a lot of bribes for mythical traffic tickets). Bust into a huge factory, just by walking down the train tracks instead of going in the front door, and climb some ladders to shoot a photo that doesn't look as good through the camera as I'd hoped. Walk right back out the front again. Decide that this is probably the best way to continue, as asking permission continues to yield no love.

Nobody here speaks English, except at the hotel, and more than once in moments of frustration I have to remind myself that I'm the idiot. I only know how to say yes, no and thank you. Neither of my phones work - blocked from accessing russian networks - and foreigners are apparently not allowed to buy pay-as-you-go sim cards; the best I could do was to buy an hour of wifi from the hotel for the iphone. But I have not been able to contact a translator who was going to hook me up with a cheap hotel; he was expecting me to call again last night when I arrived.

The evening was a bit of a wash. First I had a puncture, which a nice Russian man changed in under two minutes after seeing me wrestle with my shitty rental car jack that couldn't get the car high enough. I tried to offer him some money afterwards, but he wouldn't have it.

Then I walked into the coal port, straight past security, just like in the morning, and started to shoot. Two security ladies stopped me within five minutes, but upon discovering the communication barrier, they left me alone. At this point I thought I was home free (note to self: seriously?) so I went deeper into the port. I'd just finished shooting a portrait of two dockworkers goofing for the camera when the ladies came back with an English speaking guy on the other end of their phone. He wants to know who I am and what I'm doing there. I explained to him how I had ended up here - uh, walked in the front door, nearly - to which he says 'well, now we have wery big prowblem'. So they take me to a room in the port security building and I wait for the FSB (for the record, FSB is one of the successors to the KGB). I pass the time by flirting with the bearlike security ladies in their nicely fading navy blue navy outfits.

After a while of watching Russian soap operas with the ladies, the Feds show up. There are two of them; the taller one, the one that speaks English, is wearing a Diesel printed button-down shirt and distressed jeans. He's called Dimitry. I greet him like I greet anyone, as if nothing's out of the ordinary, and I'm just genuinely excited to meet them (this works quite well on traffic cops as well, I've found, but that's a story for another blog.) The other one is shorter. He doesn't speak English. I don't catch his name. And he's fat, with a shaved head, and he's also dressed a little Euro, but in a tight green wifebeater. I figure that tonight, the part of the wife will be played by me.

Let's clear up the first bone of contention: it turns out I had crossed a border without permission. I'm assuming this is because the sailors and support staff on the freighters have perform their jobs without visas for every country they travel to. Exactly what country or jurisdiction I was in, then, was unclear.

It's 9.30pm, and they begin by asking what I'm doing there. They want to see my passport, but it's at the hotel, where it's supposed to be, although apparently foreigners are supposed to carry passports at all times, therefore causing a singularity from which time is apparently unable to escape. So we enter into some lengthy discussion to clarify the story.

Every time my new friends leave the room, I check my pulse, surprised that I'm not terrified. And every time it feels pretty normal. Bearing in mind that 747 landings, job interviews, and occasionally a pretty girl will give me the sweats, this seems superweird.

The highlights, since you're in a hurry:

- the guy asking if I wanted a cigarette, then it turns out we both used the Alan Carr easyway book to quit, and both spent a whole month eking out the last chapter. Lots of laughing

- I'm here on my Norwegian passport, which seems to make people relax. What does not make them relax is my new york drivers licence, especially after you have told them that you live in Oslo. That probably added two hours to the interview

- he offered me coffee, I asked for vodka. No vodka

- not being a perfect speaker of english, Dimitry finally tired of my drawings and charades and called his girlfriend to translate on the fly. She was in a bar, so with both of us on speakerphone, it was a little shaky, but he'd ask a question in Russian, she would flip it to English, I would reply, she would translate that back to Russian, and he would scratch some notes into his pad. Quite, quite hilarious

- as the meeting came to an end, he said that if he didn't have to be up in four hours, he'd totally be up for hitting a bar. Instead, we exchanged email addresses, so I could send him some of the other photos and we could catch up next time

The only bummer was just as it was looking like I was going to walk out of there with only a 1000 ruble fine ($60?), they made me hand over the six plates I'd shot. Interestingly, they accepted my word that the remaining two plates were unused, which made me wish I'd just told them that I'd only shot two, and handed over the blanks. I was psyched for the shots, but it could have been much worse.

They came back to the hotel with me to take a copy of my visa, passport, and immigration document. Afterwards the lady at reception told me that they had said that some agents would be back the next day to check on me. Weirdly, a couple of dudes showed up a few minutes later, and just stood around watching me as I went back to the car to grab the camera pack. Then, some guy got in the elevator with me and looked at his feet a lot. He didn't press any buttons, so when we got to my floor I motioned for him to go first, at which point he looked at his feet some more. So I got out and left him there.

Another awesome night in Murmansk!

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