"So far, so good..."
This is a statement I've been saying a lot of today. My goal - to jump through a small number of hoops to get me and my gear to Moscow. Luckily, I'm not alone in this endeavor, I have a support system. The production office, some contacts in Russia, and some nice people at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Toronto (Pearson) to New York (JFK)
I opted to leave for the airport with plenty of time to get my paperwork through. My last trip out of Canada with a flight on Air Canada took over three hours to get to the plane (Bombardier CRJ700). It was a nightmarish experience so this time I decided to leave for the airport to arrive four hours before the flight departure time.
Traveller Tip: Always get to the airport early.
In hindsight this was an extremely smart move. First of all there was no mention of where Canada Customs was located according to the airport web site. When going to Belgium I remembered our camera man going to a little room in the airport to clear his video gear. That was years ago and it might have been terminal one. Luckily there is a site for Canada Customs and it had a blurb saying that there was an office in terminal three. However it didn't say where specifically.
Traveller Tip: Canada Customs is known as the Canadian Border Services Agency at the airport
The idea was to go to the airport and look around for signs. There were none or if there were they were not apparent to me. Luckily I stumbled across an information booth., the people there directed me to the end of the airport and to the little sign labelling the small doorway to the C.B.S.A.. I noted that the office has hours on it that don't match the web site. That's good to know for future trips should I ever have to do this again.
Entrance to border services
The process of getting the carnet approved and stamped took under five minutes. Being there so early there was no line. Also I had a list of all my gear already stamped by Canada Customs from the downtown location, a procedure I did last week. It sped up the process. Before using a carnet I have used a list of my gear while travelling. I update the list each time I leave the country and get it stamped by Canada customs. It's so when you re-enter Canada you don't have to pay customs on the gear you bought here. So yay! By the time I was done it was just after 9am. The flight scheduled to leave at 1:35pm. I had some time to kill.
Traveller Tip: If leaving the country have a list of your gear (model, serial number, estimated cost, manufacturer) and check it in with customs prior to leaving. This saves any hassles of proving you did not buy it abroad.
The next hoop to jump through was that my flight AY 5682 wasn't listed on any of the airport pixel boards. The only Finnair flight displayed left at 11:30. There was a single flight to New York JFK airport on American Airlines that matched the time of departure on my itinerary. I talked to a person standing around the Delta booths just because she was free. I asked her where the FINNair booths were. I didn't see any. While she was trying to be helpful she wasn't sure where my flight was taking off from and almost sent me to terminal one. Her better judgement took over and she pointed me toward the American Airlines personal to enquiry there.
When I asked about AY 5682, the American Airlines personal knew exactly what plane I was to board. It would be American Airlines flight AA 4480. She was pretty patient and quite nice to talk to. Maybe it was just her disposition or maybe it was because I was at the airport early. People tend to be more cheery earlier on in the day. It was such a nice experience compared to the Air Canada fiasco a few weeks ago. My flight schedule had been clarified, I got my boarding passes and was on my way... To USA customs.
Traveller Tip: If your flight is not listed on the airport displays look for the flight that matches the time of departure and destination. With all the airlines partnering up with one another to cover more destinations your flight may be covered by another airline. Ask first.
The line to get to speak to a US customs agent was 30 minutes. It wasn't too bad but I could help but compare me and the others in line to cattle with the line crisscrossing and filling up a large gray, depressing room. It's in this line where you can figure out what a person's flight status is. Are they standing there like a zombie, moving only when the line moves or are they checking their watch and looking around to see if the line all of the sudden speeds up some where or if there's an elderly/sick/slow moving snail of a person keeping everyone up? Maybe it's just one guy with a lot of luggage, perhaps it's that idiot talking on her/his cell phone?
I showed the customs agent my passport and my carnet ("when you show your passport you show the carnet" echoed in my head from the previous day's conversation with the chamber of commerce) the agent asked a few questions and sent me towards the second room where i had to wait again. This is a reason to be at the airport early. Instead of having beads of sweat pouring down your forehead because you're worried your flight will leave without you, you can sit comfortably and relax while waiting for that customs agent to get to you.
Eventually I was called over and the US customs agent started filling out the carnet forms. Alarm bells went off in my head. Wasn't that supposed to be the transit form? He was filling out an import form. I asked the guy but he said you needed to fill out an import form going into a country and an export form when leaving. Since I really didn't have any experience in these matters I figured he knew what he was doing. He finished filling out the forms and sent me on my way.
The big rip off
Hungry and having a lot of time to kill I needed to get something to eat. There was this cafe on the way to my boarding area so I stopped an got a drink, sandwich and croissant. The total come out to almost $18.00. It was a huge rip off considering the quality of the food wasn't that great. I ate the food and made my way down to the waiting area for the plane.
While sitting in the same spot for about an hour, hour and a half, I kept thinking about the carnet. It then struck me that I wouldn't see my luggage until Moscow. How could I go through another visa check for exports if I didn't have my luggage or specifically the items listed on the carnet? The nagging suspicion prompted me to fire off an email to Denise at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. They were three hours behind (located in British Columbia) so it wasn't until 12:30pm, ten minutes before boarding that I got a reply. The response stated that I should try to go back to US customs to see if they could fix the paper work.
In my attempt to go back through customs... Kind of like a fish swimming against the current and all the other on coming fish, confusing people at the x-ray check points, I finally made it to a customs agent who seemed to be more attentive than others. As he stopped me I told him my plane would be boarding in 10 minutes. "you can go to US customs or you can get on your plane." was his response. I wasn't sure if that was a statement or a fortune cookie answer. It came off being very zen like. I have those two choices? "Why didn't I think of that" was my snarky brain replying in silence.
I chose the go to US customs. The logic being that if something were wrong with the carnet I might have problems in Moscow. Flying all that way to be sent back home would be bad. Worse case would be that I'd miss the flight and have to make arrangements to leave on the next one.
To my surprise as soon as a US border guard saw me and asked what was going on (I guess they don't get a lot of people coming in the opposite direction) he escorted me through to the service desk like there was a fire. It was amazing. I told him that my plane started boarding already. He got the attention of the guy behind the desk and got another guy to start filling in the transit form. Him and the first guy searched for my previously stamped forms lost in the moderate pile of previous records. The intensity and speed of these guys was incredible. They found the counterfoil, updated the import section, filled out the transition section and set me back out in what I would think would be record time. These guys were so great I wish I could have included a photo of them.
Time was running out I left the customs room to get back into the x-ray line. It was a lot shorter than the first time I went through. Maybe five people in front of me compared to the twenty from the first pass. Two of the people let me past them when they found out my plane had started boarding. The three people in front already had parts of their stuff in bins so I just waited behind them.
I explained to the x-ray techs that I had been through the line before, that they already swabbed my camera gear and that my flight was leaving in 15 minutes. It should be said that you should never look rushed because when you do that's when the x-ray techs want to do a more thorough scan of your gear and ask you more inane questions. The person asked what my light meter was and how it worked. Think of a Hitchcock movie where it inter cuts between a timer for a bomb and a guy running toward it to turn it off getting slowed down by various obstacles (the taxi driver that didn't stop, the woman walking her dog with that annoying leash wrapping around the guys legs, that stupid guy with the truck blocking the intersection). I gave her a run through while trying to get my shoes on. The fact that I was rushing made her seem to take even more time to insert the swab into the scanner. It was like I was living through a slow motion sequence. Once she gave me back my bordering pass I sprinted off to the gate. As luck would have it it wasn't that far away, down a hall, and then down an escalator to gate A9.
As you enter the waiting area from the escalator you have to turn left in a 180 degree turn to see the doors to the gates. I looked around the room as I was doing this saw that there were not as many people sitting around but there was no line up. A flight person called to me from the door way, "where are you headed?". "New York JFK." rolled off my tongue, I've said this numerous times already. "Derek Lang?". "Yes." I respond.
From that moment it was a blur. Chatter into a walkie on her shoulder "I've found him. Make sure his bags go back on the plane.", a retractable seat belt thing blocking the doors was unhinged and removed and the sliding doors pushed open by the girl as she said "They're taking off! Go down that ramp, RUN!".
It wasn't a far sprint and I could see that the door to the airplane was being reopened for me. The flight attendant on the plane "Mr. Lang, your seat is right there", pointing. "We found the missing passenger, I'm closing the door" he said to someone in the cockpit. As I sat down I quickly glanced around at all the people in the plane looking at me waiting for the plane to leave probably thinking "What an asshole!" and with that we set out to New York.
Traveller Tip: The departure time is later than the boarding time. Allocate enough time to get to the airport to make sure you're there for the boarding time.
woo hoo! Just made the flight.
the complimentary soda (note: it's a whole can)
Looking out the window
Having never been in a seat up front near the cockpit or the exit I've also never been the first person to step off a plane at the airport. It's a weird feeling, usually I'm some where in the back waiting for the people in front of me to find their suitcase and file out. I could then follow those people and find out where I would be going to next. It might be a connecting flight, it might be the luggage pickup, or customs, or it could be the pixel board displaying where to go next.
I had a two and a half hour window until my next flight to Helsinki so I figured I'd wonder around and explore a little.
As I walked out into the main artery of the airport I saw a giant big red apple sign with the words "Welcome to New York city" floating above. Filling the air was Stevie Wonder singing "You are the Sunshine of my life.". I felt a sense of awe and wonderment and time seemed to slow down. It's one of those moments you want to soak in. The "I'm actually going to Moscow" feeling had kicked in. People next to me taking photos in front of the apple, some small kid in a baby buggy pointing at the planes outside with a huge smile on her face, some travellers hugging each other (I think they met at the airport by the looks of it), and most importantly the beckoning of potential food stalls that I would be able to get food at. But first to find the boarding area for my connecting flight.
It was odd. My flight itinerary said Finnair but the whole airport was American airlines. I checked my boarding pass since I didn't see anything on an airport screen with my AY 6 flight number on it. So I checked the pixel board by my Gate 4 on my boarding pass.. The American airline was different with the flight number but the destination and departure time was the same. I made my way to the waiting area and because it was still early there were no flight workers around. It was then I decided I should get food.
Chinese combo quick and easy
There's not a lot of healthy food options at JFK. McDonald's and Aunt Annie's stood out but I didn't want to eat something that would disagree with me later. There wasn't really anything that stood out as food I could only get in New York/USA so I ended up at a Chinese fast food place complete with the bright orange sweet and sour chicken balls. The food was nothing to write home about and I could feel the high fructose corn syrup being absorbed into me from the large Sprite I ordered. ugh.
When going up and down in an elevator or in a plane sometimes the change in pressure makes your ears feel like they are being plugged up. I have been told that you can try yawning with your mouth wide open or try swallowing. This is where lifesavers come in. I bought a pack for $1.50.
Traveller's Tip: when flying some people are more susceptible to the change in air pressure. Yawing with your mouth wide open, or swallowing, help pop your ears.
Throughout the airport were charging stations. Under the large blue signs was a post with power outlets and a shelf to place your phone or device that needed charging. I thought this was interesting as the JFK wi-fi is not free. You could order internet for just under $8 if you had a credit card. How to make your airport less appealing to visitors? Charge for internet.
New York to Helsinki
Weird. I suppose I thought I'd be on a plane in the front getting seated while people in economy stumbled by trying to get to their seats. I was in business class after all. Instead of entering the plane and turning to the right, like I usually do, heading toward the back of the plane with all the other passengers I was directed to go left, to the front of the plane. As I pushed some curtains aside a whole separate section for business people was revealed.
Comfy retractable seating
Economy class was out of sight and new age like music that you might hear in a spa gently filled the air. The section of the plane had about 30 odd chairs that looked big and comfy, complete with a pillow and a remote control built into the arm rest for the tv in front of your knees. Wow. It's pretty impressive. Closer inspection also revealed European electrical outlets and the chair could be flatten into a bed.
Personal monitors to watch movies, TV shows, airplane stats
Glass of "apple juice"
Glasses of champagne floated on trays carried by the air stewardesses. I thought that they were glasses of ginger ale or apple juice and took one with that in mind. Surprise. Nothing makes a flight more comfy than being drunk. But wait that's not all. A heated moist face towel? A selection of movies with the foreign section movies being from Korea, India, Japan, among others. I was impressed.
Mini travel kit
Large headphones were given to us to listen to movie selections as well as mini travel kits. Blindfold, socks, lip balm, ear plugs all in a self contained bag that could be hung next to the monitor. It was pretty cool I must say. I'm usually happy with just a drink and a bag of pretzels.
Speaking of food. There was a glass of nuts, juice, dinner and breakfast served on the flight. Oh and a nice selection of booze. Since I don't drink much that was an option that I didn't really monopolize on.
Dinner: first course
Dinner: squash soup (yummy!)
Dinner: main course
Foreign film selection
The flight was eight and a half hours. The plane was an airbus A330-300.
12:50 Helsinki time
The Helsinki airport N60° 18.920' E24° 57.618'
There was only a twenty minute window at the Helsinki airport before I had to get on the connecting flight. I was offered to wait in a fancy executive lounge (it was part of being in business class) but decided to wait next to the boarding gate instead. I didn't want to rush around trying to find a room only to rush back. In hindsight though I've been wondering what was in that room? more food and drinks? Girls in bikinis? Robots to wash your feet?
One of the things I noticed was that the layout of this airport was exceptionally easy to get around. I was shaped like a V if you looked at the plan view. Well placed signage that did not depend on language to help a visitor know where to go. Also free wi-fi. That came in handy. I managed to read and reply to emails that I couldn't get to while in New York.
There was also part of the airport that had been allocated as an art gallery type of setting. I spent a bit of time looking at the different installations. The white moulded child-like figures sort of had a creepiness to them. I'm not sure why. Maybe because they looked elf like? I'm not sure.
There were a bunch of vending machines that had drinks in them. I should have brought some euros with me. I could visualize the zip lock bag of change back at home in my travel bin sitting there collecting dust since I last put them there from Paris. That was a while ago.
Traveller Tip: If you know what connections, if any, you're flying into bring a few local dollars for food and drinks. In Finland they use Euros
Clearly marked washrooms
temping drinks in a vending machine
another vending machine, more drinks
text on one of the glass walls in the waiting area
Helsinki to Moscow (Flight AY 0153)
Helsinki Airport from the runway
As it turned out the waiting room for the next flight was actually a waiting area to wait for and get on a bus. While waiting I saw a woman wearing boots that looked like they were made from a disco ball.The boots were covered with little mirrored squares. I'm not sure what happened to her in that on the bus I seemed to be surrounded by a bunch of business men and she seemed to have disappeared.
Boarding Finnair AY 0153 (airbus A320)
The plane to Moscow was much smaller than the plane from New York but it had a small business class section. About 27 seats and only two of them were filled. There was a woman reading a book and then there was me.
Looking at my watch which had been switched to Moscow time I read 11:41am or 2:41am eastern standard time. Before changing it, I thought it was the afternoon. I had been travelling for the last 14 hours and a bit but because of the different sun position and the napping it didn't feel that long.
During the flight I watched a small corner mounted TV airing some peek-a-boo camera show, maybe just for laughs. It had footage from Montreal, Quebec. I always find it odd to be in a different country and seeing Canadian culture in one form or another (be it media or food).
The flight was about an hour and a half and it wasn't long before they served food. In this case breakfast. My second breakfast of the day. Amazing.
Moscow airport, Terminal F
Leaving the airplane I entered into the Moscow airport. The first thing I noticed was that it was hard to breathe. I thought I was getting out of shape, maybe being awake for so long, sitting in airplane chairs without moving, and then having to walk to the luggage area? No, it was smoke. In Russia they are allowed to smoke in airports. I needed to find my luggage and get the heck out of there.
Airport Terminal F to Kempinski
After passing through the passport/visa check point, I was met by two unknown men. "Derek Lang? Follow us.". They escorted me to a car where a third man was driving. My first thought was to ask for ID, who are these people? I then remembered that while in Helsinki I emailed a photo of myself to Rhodion one of our Russian contacts. He was the one that recognized me.
We drove to Terminal D where I had my carnet stamped then returned to Terminal F where I picked up my luggage. It was all a bit confusing but in the end everything worked out. The following are photos I took while in the backseat of the car taking me to the Kempinski hotel...
Rhodion poses for the camera
Pipes above ground N55° 57.924' E37° 25.919'
Rhodion works away during the drive
A walkway with rings N55° 54.038' E37° 27.246'
What's that yellow box in the foreground for? N55° 53.715' E37° 26.775'
Some random signage N55° 53.715' E37° 26.775'
More random signage N55° 48.222' E37° 31.117'
A building that looks like it's in a state of decay N55° 47.316' E37° 33.520'
An ad for Wreck-it Ralph in Russian N55° 45.774' E37° 35.234'
Some smoke stacks N55° 44.521' E37° 36.424'
What I would later find out is the Kremlin N55° 44.777' E37° 36.579'
What I would later find out is the Cathedral of Christ our Saviour N55° 44.791' E37° 36.732'
The Kempinski Hotel
The hotel is old, the detail in the architecture is just a wonder to look at. When I got to opening my room door I was flabbergasted. The hotel room(s) area was about six times the size of my small apartment back home. It was so large. I had a lot of room to unpack my gear, test it and not have any trouble tripping over stuff.
Being tired I went to lie on the bed but then remembered I was in a new place and had to go out to take some photos. Once work started who knew how much time I'd have to wonder around. I told the coordinator that I'd be awake and in my hotel room by 7pm. We were to have a meeting once Michael flew in from London.
My hotel room, the living room part
My hotel room, the bedroom part
Washroom with two sinks
Ash tray in the elevator. Boo.
The hotel is located right on one side of a bridge. On the other side of the bridge was red square. So the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral, the GUM, Lenin's Tomb were all located on the other side of the bridge. I ended up taking a few photos and looking around. It seemed dark for the time I had on my watch. It was also overcast so I couldn't see the sun. Using the iPad and the sunseeker app I noticed that the sun was already pretty low to the horizon. Later on I would figure out that the sun rises later and sets earlier in Moscow than in Toronto or London. It doesn't get as high in the sky in this part of the world during this time of year. We were higher up on the planet after all.
St. Basil's Cathedral as seen from the bridge N55° 44.974' E37° 37.442'
The steps down the bridge toward St. Basil's and red square
The G.U.M. (a big shopping centre) N55° 45.171' E37° 37.342'
The building that holds Lenin's tomb. N55° 45.171' E37° 37.342'
St. Basil's from Red Square N55° 45.215' E37° 37.266'
Entrance to the underground tunnel to cross the street N55° 45.080' E37° 37.436'
I stumbled across an underground tunnel that allowed you to get from one side of the bridge to the other without crossing the heavy traffic filled street. The lights were a really warm orange (the photographer brain kicking in). It was in the tunnel that I found a street vendor with a bunch of T-shirts and hats and those doll containers that fit inside one another. I bought a hat (read more on this below) and despite not speaking Russian the vendor managed to introduce me to paintings she did of St. Basil's Cathedral. There were all really nicely done and she was asking 1000 RUB for some of the larger ones 400 for the postcard sized ones. It seemed like a bargain and then I thought of all the crap in my apartment collecting dust and if I had any room left to carry them back undamaged. I ended up not buying anything else and left smiling, waving and saying thank you in Russian.
The tunnel with a souvenir vendor
The Kempinski, our hotel, on the river N55° 44.955' E37° 37.485'
A metro subway station N55° 44.545' E37° 37.721'
Past the hotel going in the other direction, Asya told me about a sandwich place, I found a subway station. I never found the sandwich place and wondered if I missed it or I didn't walk far enough. It's something that I find interesting when visiting other places. Some people think half a block is too far and insist you get into a car while others will think walking half an hour is pretty close. It's times like these I wish I had bought a fold out map so they could show me where the sandwich place was. I suppose I could have used the iPad map but the instructions seemed so simple and the placement of the sandwich shop to the hotel seemed so close.
I never found the sandwich shop.
Random street signs N55° 44.509' E37° 37.716'
Back in the hotel room I started going through my gear. Cleaning the lenses and checking for dust on the camera sensor. It was 7pm. I was about to take a nap when my phone rang. We were going to have a meeting earlier at 8:30pm. That was good as I was about to fall asleep.
Asya in the hotel lobby
The meeting took place in the hotel lobby. It's where I met the guys from SnapRoll Media. They were the helicopter operators from Tennessee, USA. Preston and Spencer had food ordered already. I liked the look of Spencer's club sandwich so I ordered one for myself along with a tiny glass bottle of Coke. It made things simple. I didn't have to look at a menu.
Preston and Spencer of SnapRoll Media, Michael, Rhodion, Sasha at our preliminary meeting
(right to left) Alex, Sasha, and Sergey
Patrick, Ben and Chau, the visual effects coordinators still working on R.I.P.D. put me up to finding a Russian winter hat and while wearing it and eating food take a photo. Since it was the first night I didn't expect to find anything but as fate would have it the vendor in the tunnel had a bunch of these hats for 500 rubels (RUB) which at the time translated to about $20 CAN. I could find any Russian food but was given a couple of cans of Coke by Rhodion and Asya. So here's the photo.
I'm holding a Russian coke and look like a dork.
The hat was a little small but I figured I could take it back to Toronto and find someone to give it to. I have someone in mind already and hoping their head is a little smaller.
By the end of the meeting and a quick visit back to the bridge to get some example photos it was about 11pm or 36 hours since leaving my apartment in Toronto. I fell asleep in the big comfy bed quite quickly.