Vladivostok: The Final Swim


Don tries to look inconspicuous

Natie puts on her bikini in the morning to be ready for the swim and reminds me I have to remember to wear something appropriate.  Don is still sick and stays asleep so Lari and I decide to stroll around the hilly streets of Vladivostok making random turns at corners to see what’s out there.  Lari remembers she needs to send some postcards and despite my protesting that she’ll never manage it, she heads into the post office.  I find a large, soft chair and sink into it listening to music while she lines up.  Just forty-five minutes later she makes it to be served and a lengthy discussion is had by every staff member in the room over whether the stamp covering a part of the writing is acceptable or not.  Even after Lari tells them repeatedly she doesn’t mind, they do; the person wont be able to read it easily.  She mimes and fumes and finally they accept the cards.

It’s been a while since we dealt with officials like this and I spend my time considering how they must have achieved this level of dysfunction.  I can only assume they build customer service interfaces to strict guidelines:

• The process must be lengthy and particularly complicated.

• It must require discussion with at least one other person about how to navigate the minefield of forms and approvals.

  • Extra points awarded if you can involve everyone in the room in the discussion, so nobody else gets served.

• It must involve long pauses where it isn’t clear to anyone what on earth is going on.

• It should have no more than a 50% chance of success.

  • To be more efficient would clearly encourage people to make use of the service, which must be avoided at all costs.

• If the customer is happy to make a decision to make it easier, they must be talked out of it at all costs.

If the process does not meet these requirements, I’m absolutely positive that the form to approve it would not be stamped by the disinterested wage slave hunched over a decaying desk in some ancient building buried in the heart of Moscow.

Lari looking inconspicuous outside a beauty salon...

The afternoon otherwise passes pleasantly during the walk and I receive a message from Natie telling us to meet in the same food court before our swim.  Don makes it in again and is looking a lot better, far more awake and alive. So it ends up being the three Australians, Natie and Stefan heading for a Vladivostok beach party.  We catch a normal bus most of the way and acquire a few beers at a pavement shop to enjoy on the beach.
“That room is so strange to sleep in”, Stefan says while we’re storing the beers in our backpacks.
“I know what you mean.  You feel very…ummm….isolated up there”, Lari agrees.
“Especially by yourself in a strange city”, Stefan adds.
Natie looks curious and is struggling to comprehend.
“It’s just a room.  Did you see the girls in the next room at all?”, she shrugs and asks.
“I haven’t seen anyone”, Stefan says blankly and Don and Lari agree.

Lari swims past her boat...

As we’re strolling down the hill we begin to see that our mental picture of a ‘beach’ and the reality are at some odds with each other.  Train tracks run within twenty metres of the shoreline and next to them are a series of metal sheds.  It reminds me of the small wooden beach shacks they have on some beaches around Melbourne that are generally owned by wealthy locals as a status symbol.  I’m not entirely sure what purpose these ones serve, but they look the part.  The beach is also made solely from largish smoothed rocks rather than sand, but there are a bunch of locals here sitting on towels, swimming and otherwise enjoying the beach atmosphere.

This is the very bay the tall ship is anchored in and I keep looking out to it across the water.  In so many ways I want to swim to it and continue my journey on the boat, to wherever it will take me.  The cold water does slow me down for a moment, but I’m still the first person to dive in.  I adopt the Australian standard position; sitting and clutching Amur lager in my hand.  The Amur is the river we crossed on the way into Khabarovsk and Natie also tells us this is the Amur bay.  I just enjoy drinking Amur in Amur near the outlet of the Amur.
“After our swim in Lake Baikal, this is a warm bath, Don”, I remind my shivering friend.

Dhugal being Australian

Natie discovers the water is fairly cool..

He looks at me in the water, then turns to include everyone else and says,
“I think that no matter how cold any water that we swim in for the rest of our lives actually is; we will be able to knowingly scratch our chin and say, ‘It’s not as cold as Lake Baikal’.”
Lari and I smile and laugh in agreement as Natie wonders,
“So you all really swam in the Lake?”
“Yes.  We did it to add twenty-five years to our life”, Lari tells her.
“Twenty-five?  I haven’t heard that one, but I know the lake is very cold.  Not so much like this water”, she replies.
The look on Natie’s face as she brings her lithe, bikini clad figure knee deep in the water tells a different story.  I think she may be about to suffer some combination of hypothermia, a heart attack and a seizure all at once.
“Have one of the beers”, I offer, “It’s working a charm on warming me up.”
She returns to shore where Lari hands her one before she forces herself to plunge in.

After some swimming distractions in the water we decide the light rainfall is probably suggesting we should head off.  I don’t want to leave the water; this really is the beginning of the end.  10,000 kilometres ago I dipped my hand in the bay of Finland and here I am the last to leave the cool ministrations of the Bay of Amur.  As we are putting shoes back on and getting ready to leave we find ourselves talking to a middle aged Russian man who is determined to demonstrate his diving abilities from the end of a nearby wooden jetty.  He runs along its length, flies into a somersault and hits the water straight.  We applaud appreciatively and he repeats the stunt a little higher and faster.  You can tell his wife isn’t terribly impressed with him showing off for the two beautiful women with us, but she doesn’t really want to stop him either.  He comes up to talk with us and all I can see is that his eyes are two different colours; blue and yellow.  As we walk back to the bus stop, I ask if anyone else noticed and Lari laughs saying she couldn’t look at anything else either.

Dhugal wins the man boobs competition!!

On the journey back to the city Natie tells us about the two rivers that run through Vladivostok.
“Both of them are quite short and so are their names.  First River and ….Second River.”
I burst out laughing
“First River is simply further to the south, the direction the first explorers arrived from by boat”, Natie continues.
“They should be in Australia somewhere with names like that”, I reply.
I tell her about the Australian fetish with stupid names and placenames and this leads me to tell her about my theory of Russians and Australians being surprisingly similar.
“…I’ve certainly felt at home with the Russians for the last seven weeks”, I finish.
“I agree! I loved the two Australians I’ve already hosted; they just seem to fit into life here so easily and you are all the same.”
We decide to have dinner and a quiet night in preparation for tomorrow’s party.  Then we completely fail to do so.

The restaurant we land in is good, apart from the distinct lack of any beer on the menu and staff who prefer to chat amongst themselves rather than do anything.  Ivan arrives with his American boss and that livens things up quite a bit.  They have been enjoying beers somewhere else and are also horrified to discover the terrible deficiency in the menu.  It’s a beer free zone that desperately needs to be fixed.  The solution is obvious and they order a round of vodka, which also arrives with all the speed and reckless pace of a glacier.  By this time Natie really wants to go home, we all know tomorrow will be a big one and a long sleep tonight is a good idea.  Lukasz is arriving tomorrow as well; I’m so happy to be spending my last night here with our mad polish friend.  We finally extricate ourselves from the restaurant after eleven and make use of the Russian people’s taxi service to get everyone home in a few passing cars.

When we get home Natie and I are both ready for sleep and I move my mattress setup a little to try and centre the top mattress on the air mattress underneath.  It should make it even more comfortable, but becomes something quite unexpected.  I wake up sometime later to the sound of something tapping on wood repeatedly.  I can’t figure out what it is and fall asleep again, only to be woken up by the same sound again.  I look around and try to figure out what it could be and end up drifting off to be woken up once again by this repetitive tapping sound.  I suddenly realise it is my foot twitching just as I’m about to fall into deep sleep and catching on the corner of the desk drawer.  I have managed to move just close enough to it for this to be possible.  Just as this is dawning on me I hear Natie’s voice in the darkness ask me, in Russian,
“What ARE you doing??”
I know what the answer is, but I’m close enough to real sleep to make it impossible for me to actually speak.  I just can’t wake up enough to move my lips.  Now it dawns on me what she is probably thinking about what some guy lying on the floor of her room might be up to in the middle of the night.  Something that would cause noises like that.  I move the mattress and somehow go back to sleep.  Then I completely fail to bring it up in the morning.  I try to imagine how that conversation might progress,
“So Natie, last night, when my foot was banging your drawers….”
“Umm…yes…I…wondered about that.”
“You see, it was just that your legs twitch when you’re going to sleep, it happens to everyone and I kept waking up because of it…”
“Ummm….right…your legs….twitch?”
“Yes, of course, nothing more than that, it’s not like I was….”
“Oh of course, I’m sure you weren’t.”
“I mean that’d be demented….I mean…”
“Yes. It was.”
“But…when you sleep…your legs…I couldn’t wake up…”
“And I’m sure your hand just fell between your legs awkwardly.”
“Do you have a good strong rope handy?“
“Why, does that get you off as well? Maybe you want me to tie you up and whip you with a piece of celery….freak!”
“No…I’m just going to nip outside and hang myself, it seems easier somehow”
“Oh, no worries, here’s a good one…you do know that your…..legs…. will probably ….twitch again when you hang yourself.”
“True enough, but I won’t be around to notice.”

Okay, so there’s virtually no chance that it would go like that.  But it’s moments like these that I’m sure aren’t covered in any book of daily manners and politeness.  If only some middle aged woman could just write a book with chapters titled ‘How to explain why things aren’t what they seem when you look like a complete deviant’ or ‘Acceptable excuses for unacceptable behaviour’.  Actually, I think the line ‘I have a condition’ would probably solve a lot of dodgy moments, but then you’d have to explain what it is and what you’re doing about it.  Like the guy who had an orgasm every time he sneezed.  I think he was taking pepper for that.


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