Back on Dry Land in North Carolina : Part III

June 1st, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

In the past couple days, I made a new Couch Surfing friend in North Carolina, ate at two locavore restaurants, boarded a plane in the birthplace of Pepsi (New Bern, NC) for the hometown of Coca Cola (Atlanta) and then flew back to SF, where I am now.

Our little shakedown cruise of a 1,000 miles covered many aspects of a boat’s lifecycle.

  • We stepped up Borka’s two masts:Stepping Up the mast
  • We traveled through canals and bridges and learned to communicate with transport operators. I got to play with VHF radios. Here’s an example exchange :

    “Dismal Swamp Canal Bridge, Dismal Swamp Canal Bridge … this is sailboat Borka heading southbound.”

    The bridge operator would respond; the bridge would lift, rotate, hinge, creak, and open …

  • We spent nights out in the ocean or in marinas, docking or mooring. We even spent a night at a crab cracking restaurant in Deale, MD on the Chesapeake after docking for dinner and then staying the night.
  • At the end, we lifted Borka out of the water and left her on drydock for the hurricane season.Borka Getting Dry Docked

    ***

    For the duration of the trip it felt as though the boat had become an extension of our bodies, our own little universe, a floating home. The rituals of mooring, jumping off to catch the lines, keeping everything orderly an neat, and maintaining readiness to react to unexpected changes in wind, current, or both. Taking precautions in high wind and rough water to keep the life vest on when above board, helming or climbing on deck; being constantly aware of our GPS coordinates.; but mostly, just making sure to take advantage of the down time, to read, to tan, to relax, to take pictures and look around.

    ***

    From the water, you get a different perspective of land. Nuclear power plants hide in the thicket of woods from the road, but can’t hide from the bodies of water that cool them. We passed Indian Point on the Hudson River in NY State, Hope Creek and Salem Reactors on the Delaware River which provide 3/8th of NJs electricity, and the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on the Chesapeake in Maryland.

    India Point Nuclear Power Plant, Hundson

    Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Reactors

    Salem and Hope Creek Nuclear Reactors

    ***

    I’ve been close to Army’s machines of war before, but this is the first time I got as cozy with the Navy:

    Navy Bimp

    USS IKE Aircraft Carrier

    ***

    The experience of sailing at night on the open ocean (albeit not far from land) was also exhilarating. I made practical use of the stars for navigation, setting our bearing using the compass first, but then taking an object in the sky as heading reference.  The vastness punctuated by lights evoked a parallel to wandering the open playa during early days of Burning Man. Occasionally you see another group of lights saunter on their own path across the darkness. The wonderfully illuminated and decorated ships seemed like elaborate art cars. Massive fishing vessels, with large stabilizing booms out to the sides and cranes to haul their catch on board, bright sodium bulbs, or flashing navigation LEDs, and large mesh nets swaying in the wind.  Off in the distance to our right the lights of Atlantic City and the New Jersey coast (including a massive LED screen you could see from 4 miles away) buzzed with activity resembling the esplanade. This was impossible for me to photograph.  And I felt as I sometimes feel at magnificent moments: I can’t wait to get back to the real world and tell my friends about it.

    ***

    At the mouth of Alligator River we met a crazy dane, Henning Bohm who has been sailing solo for 45 years. After his 4th heart attack, he finally qualified for a pension from the Danish government and freedom from his construction management job.  He asked his doctor for the hard truth and learned he has less than a 25% chance of living out a year.  Henning took this news in stride, sold all of his stuff, bought a boat and sailed West across the North Atlantic against the prevailing trade winds.

    He holed up for the winter at a marina in Connecticut where his boat was being repaired. He wanted it in peak shape so that he could sail it to the Caribbean and wither away there … or if his heart held up, to sail back to Denmark through a crazy counterclockwise loop across the whole Atlantic (east from the Caribbean’s West Indies to the Canary Islands and north triumphantly back home.)

    Unfortunately Neptune had other things in mind for Henning: straight out of gate his autopilot broke (which is a key feature for someone sailing solo), set his heater ablaze in the ocean (on which Henning emptied his drychem fire extinguisher), and most spectacularly, ripped off his steering wheel, leaving Henning without a means of pointing the boat (there was no backup rudder.) Henning had to call “Mayday Mayday Mayday” over the radio and a few hours later the Coast Guard showed up (20 miles off shore) and towed him back in for more repairs.

    When Henning set out again, he was aware of the NOAA advisories of strong winds. But such trifles usually don’t bother him since he likes to sail fast, and this is how he ended up in the path of Hurricane Alberto (the first of 2012) outside of Cape Hatteras, which is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. It came on so suddenly that he didn’t even have a chance to bat down his hatches or pull down his sail. It also got dark. He just strapped himself in the cockpit and faced what he called “a blindfolded ride on a roller coaster” which lasted for over 12 hours. He lay down in the cockpit, sprawling to stay put, bruising most of his body, barely keeping his head out the water (as both the boat salon and the cockpit were filling with water from crashing waves) and trying to steer into the wind (which he could not see, but could only hear the sails.)  ”In my 45 years of sailing, this is the first time I was truly scared for my life.”

    When the hurricane strength winds let up a bit, he tried to come ashore at a nearby harbor, but because his engine was busted, he could not fight the SSW wind and had to retreat 100+ miles back north to Hampton, MD. There he bailed 288 buckets of water from the boat, using a hand pump 80-90 times to fill each bucket (when the water level got too low to scoop.) His bilge pumps failed when their air intakes were also inundated. The good news was that his cat, Felix, survived.

    Henning sailed south again, using a safer path. “‘You’re too old to fight the ocean, try the intracoastal,’ they told me. And I did.”  He felt very tired but let on. Then he woke up suddenly, “in the middle of the day, with my clothes off, laying in bed, and the boat was still sailing. I thought it was a dream, so I went back to bed. Then I woke up again and looked around. Everywhere, swamp, swamp, swamp. Must be a nightmare! So, I went back to bed again.” When he finally woke up, he acknowledged the reality of having run aground. In trying to pull it out, he tore his Genoa Sheet (trying to jerk himself off the bank.) When high tide came, he was towed by a friendly boat into the nearest marina.

    The Coast Guard was summoned a second time. This time they took Henning to a hospital.  Apparently he lost of a lot of blood to internal bleeding and they gave him a transfusion.

    When we pulled into the Alligator River Marina, Henning approached us. When we asked, “how are you doing?” He responded, “Oh … Not so well” and told us this story adding that he has been staying put for two weeks trying to regain his strength.

    If you can read Danish or know a computer that can, you can read his own account of the events on his facebook fan page (closed).

    I got an audio recording of Henning telling this story, so when I feel up to editing it, I will post it here. We helped Henning deal with his ripped sheet, invited him to dinner, and inadvertently witnessed his internal bleeding. One side of Henning’s mouth had no teeth from above and the other from below. I came to think of his smile as a Yin and Yang.

    We met other interesting characters on this trip, but Henning wins first place.

    ***

    You might also like :

  • Our friends Tara and Sasha’s sailing blog.
  • Animated guide to sailing knots.
  • The Sailing Anarchy blog.

Where the Buttocks end & the Hemotomas begin?

January 13th, 2010 § 4 comments § permalink

… or My Sunday Skiing Accident

It seems like everything I write is an accident report, and I’m not even an emergency professional. Hopefully this is my last one. I am retiring from accidents, and the following is the beginning of an exploration of how.

I’ve got two very large hematomas on my rear end. (On top of never being able to sit still) I will not be able to sit comfortably for at least a few days, and since I am on pain killers my mental game is almost completely shot.

It could have been a lot worse.

Skiing this Sunday, I went up a ramp for a jump. It was my first time on that run, and I had no idea what was on the other side. My mental model was a flat elevated bank. I don’t know why. At the moment I got airborne, I realized just how wrong I was.

The Fall

Given the abrupt drop, I don’t think I could have landed anyways — not that a better skier wouldn’t have been able to handle it. The fact that my trajectory invariably resolved to a large rock bulging out of the mountain, made landing the least of my concerns.

fuzzy sketch. ~15ft from take off to landing.

When we were going up the ski lift, Mike told me of a cliff on this mountain that he almost accidentally skied off the previous year. “I almost died right there,” and pointed at it.

I thought about this as I cradled myself for the fall and in a short time which seemed like eternity, I came to terms with all of it — the blood and the snow, the bone and the rock, and sinew — for what use is there in protesting the inevitable?

not the slope i fell on. it's from my previous run. here to convey the terrain.

But I did protest (on behalf of my whole-ness) as best I could: I crouched; I lifted my hands to my head and let the ski poles stick out over my elbows forming a kind of cavity; I tried to take the first impact on my skis, which I managed, bending my knees to absorb; the second impact on the poles, and then I lost control. The skiis and poles went flying, my rear end significantly clipped the rock and I tumbled past it down the hill, futilely trying to account for my limbs and slow the slide.

When I came to, I didn’t know which side was up. I was both stiff and shaking and the only word that came out of my mouth was “fuck”. It came out loud, “FUUUUCK”. It came out in short sequences, “fuck, fuck, fuck”. And it came out with every breath until I managed to roll myself on my back and lose myself in the cold embrace of the snow. I didn’t see any blood and surprisingly, I could still move my fingers and toes.

Mike, who had been snowboarding behind me, watched me ascend and fall out of view. He appeared at the crest. A couple of boarders who witnessed my inglorious moment told him, “your boy ate it real bad, and probably needs the ski patrol.” Besides the fact that one of my skis skied on without me, there was no way I could make it down the mountain myself.

Damage

The ski patrol came, wrapped me in a stretcher and towed me with a snowmobile to the medical clinic at the base. They made sure I didn’t have any bone or spine damage and let me out of the bindings. When I reached around to palpitate my behind, I felt an unfamiliar bulge and another.

I asked to go to the bathroom, where I turned my back to the mirror and took off my pants. It looked like a pomegranate was glued to my left buttocks and an eggplant was attached to my right thigh. I estimated that a pint of blood filled each shape. My skin was stretched taught and reddish purple. Nothing else looked as bad or hurt as much as those two places.

It was then that I realized that my ass was so big, that I could not get my pants back on. Nor could I bend over sufficiently to take off my skiing boots. I walked out into the hallway in boxers with my pants dangling at my feet.

The doctor helped me with the boots and said these were among the worst hemotomas he has seen and they would likely need to be drained in a few days. He gave me a few Vicadin on the spot and a prescription for more, “you are going to need this.”

Hematoma

For the next 48 hours, I stuffed loose fitting pants with ziplock bags of snow or ice. I attached them with binder clips at my waistline to keep them properly positioned. I slept on my stomach with my rear elevated and iced. As I sit writing this, I’ve folded pillows into complimentary shapes. I’ve been using an ergonomic chair that shifts my weight to the knees. When I go to the bathroom, I dream about a squat toilet. (I record this because it’s important not to forget these pathetic nuances of dealing with basic necessities, to relate to the realities of old and infirm.)

i have reduced this image and obfuscated it to keep it appropriate.

Over the past three days, I’ve taken up valuable time from various people: Mike, the ski patrol, the mountain med clinic, the student health clinic, the ER. My department and graduate advisor have helped with health insurance, (an issue now that I have graduated.) I’m lucky to have this network of support. And I’ve been told by almost each of them of how lucky I was to have gotten off with the damage I have, from the impact I had. And the problem is that I have put myself and such people through this charade already several times.

Lessons

So what’s the lesson here? Obviously, don’t jump without knowing where you are landing. Prepare for tricks by first studying a given run several times. Wear a freaking helmet.

But for me, the lesson is different. I get into these situations too often. If I learn that discrete lesson, new lessons will remain to be learned. And besides, mountains sports are inherently dangerous. The medical clinic was full to the last bed, like an inner city trauma ward, and some of the sights weren’t so pretty. Last time I went snowboarding, I fractured a rib and it hurt to breathe or sleep for almost a month.

So, I have decided to retire from mountain sports. Skiing/boarding is fun. It’s just not for me. I like challenging myself, which would be fine on a basketball or volleyball court, running or playing squash (though I get injured there too). An alternative would be to reflect and consider some behavioral remediation and generally tune down my avarice for risk. But since I actually treasure that aspect of my character, I am choosing to instead restrict the domain of activities I engage in, to those with better exercise/fun/reward vs risk trade offs.

Sore, but happy to have this off my chest, ./pp


Here are some photos of the progress:

Left Buttocks 1

Right Thigh 1

Left Buttocks 2

Right Thigh 2

Curvas peligrosas – My first serious accident.

February 13th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

One months ago, I was hanging by the seat belt in a sideways car across the lane of a windy mountain highway in Mexico. Blood was streaming from my elbow. My thoughts were focused on the immediate there and then. Now it’s time for reflection.

Hwy 1 – Baja, Mexico. Jan 3rd.

For most of the longitudinal span of the Baja peninsula, the only paved road is a single lane highway with the lanes heading in opposite directions separated by a dashed yellow stripe. The most frequent sign on the side of this road is curvas peligrosas [dangerous curves]. As frequent as the symbolic are the more realistic reminders of the danger. These come in the form of variously disfigured and discarded vehicles, or the harder-to-spot mechanical entrails, such as headlights and shredded tires, but also dents on the guard rails and scars on the road itself.

From the way people drive you wouldn’t know it. There is a bimodal distribution of speeds on this highway. There were those I glimpsed on their quick approach in the rear-view mirror, swerving around me, and then gaining on the horizon in front.

There were others that were probably as eager to go that fast, but either because they were heavy tractor-trailers or dilapidated jalopies, they just couldn’t push it. These I passed with ease.

Four of us, were returning from a week long road trip in Baja. We had lots of ground to cover in two days. We were planning a layover in LA that night (Saturday), before setting out to SF the following morning. (Sunday) My friend had just completed a 6 hour marathon driving session, and handed over the controls to me in San Quentin, still 200 miles south of the border (Tijuana).

When I started the starlit ascent into the mountains past the valley, the road became windy. A flash rain passed and stopped. Most of the turns were marked well in advance, except for the turn that got me. Because of the change in elevation it was a blind turn and when I finally realized we were heading into a curve, it turned out to be too late. We were driving above 60 mph when I first caught the sharp turn.

Skid, Tumble and Roll

To our right, was a steep drop off. To the left was the mountain face the road was hugging. When I turned the wheel, the car swerved and woke David. As the tired lost traction, he screamed “watch out”. We were skidding with our right side forward, while heading straigh for the mountain.

I turned the wheels in the direction of the skid to regain traction. This jerked the car around into a left side forward skid, at which point I hit the anti-lock brakes so we would not drive forward off the cliff. During the skid a rock on the left margin of the road hit our back tire, and this was enough to send the car tumbling.

At that point, we had lost control. Just brace. All of the peices have been set in motion. Now it’s up to the physical model play itself out and for the peices to land where they may.

When we rolled over all of the windows smashed. I had my elbow resting on the window while driving. Now, I watched as my elbow compressed into a sandwich of broken glass and pavement.

When we toppled on the roof, I felt like my head was dented with a baseball bat. A weightless upside down hang during the tumble, I must have formed a body image coincident with the car’s frame. The windsheild shattered and I could see the road above me and a dark expanse beyond, without obstruction.

We came to a rest on the opposite lane of the highway with our belly exposed. The sounds of crunching metal and sparks came to a stop. The only sound the car emitted was a periodic squeak from the rear windshield wiper. Only the windshield wasn’t there. The wiper was futilely wiping air, and dislodging the remaining fragments of glass.

accident_schematic

David immediately asked, “Is everyone ok?” It was reassuring to hear a voice, as I was deathly fearful for our lives. My elbow was numb and I felt a warm trickle on my hand. A “yes” escaped without much thought. I regretted it immediately, hoping I did not speak too soon. Amanda and Rupa also said yes.

How Do I get out?

I turned the key and killed the engine and climbed out first, through the broken window. Time matters. Is the car on fire? Is there a vehicle barreling down the opposite direction? Rupa stood upright in the sidways car and said, “How do I get out?” She was standing on David. I stood on a large rock that lay by the car and lifted her out.

As I turned to set her down, David’s head popped out, “How do I get out?” When I lifted him also from the same rock, I realized that I miscalculated his weight, having practiced only on Rupa (100 lb) and we collectively fell backwards, onto broken glass and rocks by the side of the road. A shared pierced my pants and sliced my buttox.

When I stood up, Amanda pleaded, “How do I get out?” The quiet only underlined how calm we were. The situation was not for panic, but clarity and immediate needs. Amanda was less than a week out of foot surgery and brought along a crutch for the trip.

As I set her down, David asked for his shoes. I recovered a pair with Amanda’s crutches. And used it also to fish out Rupa’s and David’s glasses after they both said, “I can’t see.”

The group now shod and seeing, I recovered our flashlights and headlamps and armed each person with a set.

Mixed with the adrenaline was the elation of being alive. It felt that we were connected in this understanding — that our lives were handed back to us — and it had a calming affect.

When there are enough immediately obvious tasks, you don’t need to think. Yet while I acted mechanically, pulling items out of the car, trying to wedge the foot of the crutch in the catch of the glove compartment to free Amanda’s passport, I had time to realize that I was probably not going to make it home tomorrow, when I had an appointment with my research advisor. We had agreed to meet for a final review of my paper before submission, and it was a moment I had distracted myself from anxiously anticipating, by having gone on this road trip. And I felt seriously bad. I felt this wasn’t an excuse. I wished I could just escape through a teleporter, as if this was all a dream. And when it settled that it wasn’t, I realized how clearly this accident was my fault and that I needed to own up to it. The fact that it was pointless to face my friends an apologize to my friends right there led to more regret. We were all delayed, from work and school and our regularly scheduled programs.


Powered by Google Earth Hacks | Map Details | Create your own!

Are you ok?

A truck pulled up and a Mexican man asked us if we were ok — yes. needed an ambulance — no. had called the police — no, can you please call? had flares for warning — no, do you?

He spoke clear English, yet, while talking to him, I was still lost to a mechanical focus. I walked around the car to discover that the battery cracked and had leaked all of the fluid. There was so much car part debris on that stretch of road, that I had a hard time determining if it was all ours.

While Amanda, who is a nurse, grabbed the first aid kit and reviewed my elbow situation, Rupa and David were pulling accessible items from the car. There was blood everywhere. All over my body. All over Rupa’s white blanket. A blood smeared pillow lay on the road.

Did these bags of camping supplies and food matter anymore? Were we going to lose them? I had paid 70$ for a special Mexican insurance policy that Amanda looked up on the internet. David was calling the 800 number listed on the printout. Amanda made sure there was no more glass in my elbow, poured some antiseptic and applied a temporary bandage.

The cops arrive

The cops arrived, but their behavior was surprisingly casual, almost bored. Given that it’s Mexico we’re a little lost on protocol, but we figure a tow truck has probably been called, and we’ll have to figure out some ride to a near by town. Some paperwork to be signed here, some more followup tomorrow.

After 20 minutes of chatting to us and on their radio, the officer walks over and says.

“Ok, let’s go. Can one of you drive?”

“Are we getting a tow truck?”

“If you want to wait 4-5 hours for tow truck, be my guest, but I’m not interested.”

“You mean ride this car sideways back to town? Will you follow us?”

“Yes, let’s go.”

One push from three of us set the car rattling back on its tires.

Since the battery leaked the fluid, the car wouldn’t start. The officers pulled over a car and told the driver to jump us.

When it purred and started, he said “Put the stuff back in the car.”

Under the conditions, it was an amusing proposition to drive this totaled hunk of metal down the highway. Where the windshield wasn’t busted, it was contorted, giving the road a Daliesque feel.

David took on the challenge of driving and I played side kick in the passenger seat. His glasses doubled as safety goggles, but to prevent the cascade of broken windshield in my face (which happened with every discontinuity in the road) I had to keep my head outside the passenger window.

Military Checkpoint

Within 20 minutes, we approached a military checkpoint. We thought being a hobbling wreck followed by a police car might get some special treatment, but the military were not phased. They had their orders. “Step out of the car.” They gave it a cursory inspection for drugs and whatever else and sent us on our way.

We drove what turned out to be 45 miles into the city of Ensanada topping out at 30 mph, with an ever growing tail of cars behind us, who were hesitant to pass the cops.

In town, the cops gave us the signal to follow them and immediately ran a few red lights.

Across from the police station was a motel. The clerk on duty said he wasn’t surprised to see us at 4AM, since they get a lot of business from the police station.

While David and Amanda waited for the insurance inspector to arrive, I took this photo in the bathroom.

Lucky to be alive Farewell car

I took a long hot shower. The water initially pooled crimson from the cuts on my elbow and buttocks. After a self application of neosporen and bandages, I tucked myself in a corner and went to bed.

When we woke up, we were still stranded in Mexico, still uncertain about the fate of the car and our prospects of returning home. Amanda suggested we check if we were sore, since it’s very common for people to suddenly tense up (even rigidify) during accidents and remain stiff for days.

Instead of sore, I felt very relaxed and optimistic that morning. I was lucky to be with people who remained calm and cooperative throughout the accident. Lucky to have friends that cut their road trip further south into Baja short to ferry us back across the border.

A happy tingle of adventure mixed with the rawness of the reality of how close I was to a pulverized carcas had I not worn my seatbelt.

My confidence as a driver was shattered, and I asked myself several times when is going to be right time to appologize. Ironically tristan had called me a “champion driver” the day before, when Amanda asked.

After spending the following night in Pasadena, we rented a car for the last leg to San Francisco. When he got tired of driving, Dave gave me the car on Interstate 5. Last time I was behind the wheel, the car ended up sideways, (and it was my first real accident as a driver.) I made sure to ask if they trusted me behind the wheel, and when they said yes and so comforted me, I apologized.

Traffic Court

December 19th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

Today I had the pleasure of sitting through traffic court. My case was 50th in order and I got to see about 30 people all of whom pled “guilty” or “no contest” to an average of three charges per person. 20 people or 40%, got bench warrants as “no shows”. Some were deemed a flight risk and assigned $15,000 in bail. Most, as the judge passed them to Madame Clerk, were termed mere “standard procedure”. Of the ones that appeared, most missed their first appearance date and had the additional “failure to appear charge” with a $235 fine. “Set by Sacramento. So, direct your complaints there,” said the judge. Next most common was possession of marijuana with a fee of 158$, “the only misdemeanor for which the California legislature actually bans jail time. Don’t ask me why,” remarked the judge. Speeding, running stop signs, illegal left turns, no insurance, and everybody pled “guilty” “guilty”, “guilty, your honor”.

Most speeding infractions were eligible for traffic school for an additional 24$. (Only one person declined.) Those who could not afford to pay had the option of “working it off”. One woman who came with a small child was there because she did not work off her fine the first time around. “I was pregnant, your honor.” She was given an additional six months to account for a 540$ fine.

The case which compels itself to be featured started out quite uneventfully; a charge for “illegal u-turn”, on the highway as it turned out 178$; and “failure to keep a logbook” 540$. The judge asked the tractor trailer driver who evidently was responsible for keeping some kind of record, “How bad was your log?” “I failed to record a filling stop, your honor.” The judge continued scanning the report, “I see there was an accident. So you learned the hard way not to make a u-turn on the highway. How serious was it?”

The driver then leaned into the microphone and gently placed “fatal” on the record. The judge seemed puzzled how a fatal accident could yield two minor infractions. It was the first time he’d seen it. My read of the rest of the audience uncovered a lack of concern. Everyone was tending to their own sweaty palms. Imagine this black man in a suit, in a rural courtroom, confessing that his truck got caught in the median and stuck out across the highway and a human lost his life. “He ran across my triangles and flares, your honor.” “Hmmm, the report does attribute the responsibility for the accident to the other driver. Strange… but, it’s not up to me to make the determination. I just add up the numbers. How do you plead?” The driver pled “no contest”, so that later he can claim not to have pled guilty. “That will be 718$ will you be taking care of that today or delaying for an additional court fee of 30$?” “I’ll be taking care of that today.” And with that he bowed his head and left the courtroom.

My arraignment was called. I pled “not guilty” and demanded a Trial by Written Declaration. Uneventfully granted with a continuance for two months for discovery. I was the first to plead “not guilty”. And then I left the courtroom.

no means to call for sympathy

October 16th, 2005 § 0 comments § permalink

i was riding a bike through traffic
when my cell phone flew from my pocket
a car smashed it into many little pieces.
i picked most of them up
except for the very little ones
because more cars were on their way.

strangled in moscow

May 3rd, 2004 § 0 comments § permalink

time has passed, and i have told this story many times. this means that i’ve rehearsed my telling of it, but also that i have gotten tired of hearing myself speak it out. so i write it now, for your benefit.

during a recent visit to moscow, i stayed with the family of my cambridge friend, masha tabak. the tabak’s are very interesting people, one can say, part of the russian intelligencia. as part of this intelligencia, they are defined by their multitude of interesting friends. it is this network of associations that positions you.

their friend sonya, a moscow correspondent for the new york times, was hosting a spring party at a bohemian cafe, all inside a theater, hardly a fifteen minute walk from the kremlin. most of the people in attendance were her fellow correspondents from american media. nbc, cbs, abc, npr, and some of their russian counterparts, such as ‘rea news’ and ntv. but also there was a professor of anthropology from MGU, leading lawyers, … and more that i had not met or do not remember meeting.

this last point is quite serious and takes us to the main cause of my misadventures for the evening. it is not only a stereotype about russia that everyone drinks vodka. it is also the truth. it would have been ingenuine, unmannered, … nay uncivilized for me not to partake of yet another shot to mark a fresh acquaintance.

masha and i had an objective for the evening. we were scoping out potential employers. though she is at cambridge now, and has job prospects at the bbc world service (having already become a regular contributor), she wanted to record some more telephone numbers in her black book of networking and i intended to help her.

perhaps i went about it the wrong way. perhaps i was too ambitious in the amount of people i wished to meet. or perhaps it was the rate of meeting that did me in. or perhaps, the whole episode was inescapable, an inevitability that even the party planners resigned themselves too. for 80 people, the alcohol allowance was such: 10 bottles of wine, 20 bottles of vodka.

anyhow the crux revolves around my relatively peaceful arrival to the party in the company of masha and her father, our individual leave takings, and our diverse adventures on the return home.

the first to leave was yuri, masha’s father. it was 1am and he was aware of the imminence of the last metro train. he was not aware where masha and i were. nor, it seems, was he aware enough to find us. this is surprising because the party was limited to two rooms of one cafe and we were there.

he said he thought we had prolonged our young night’s adventures elsewhere, in the company of some young and daring journalists, contributing to the chaos of the moscow night scene.

he arrived home just short of 2am. in the hallway, his wife asked him where masha and i were. he responded, ‘peretz is with some girls, masha is with some guys. they are fine.’ he did manage to remove his clothes though without regard for where they landed. then he sprawled out on the bed without regard for orientation and immediately engaged in a loud program of snoring.

right about this time, masha was having thoughts of returning home and experiencing similar troubles locating the company she came with. at this point it was just myself that remained. were i was, myself do not remember.

sonya told her that yuri went home, and perhaps masha thought i had left with him. the metro has stopped running by this point, so she caught a car and went home.

in moscow it is possible to transport oneself from origin to destination in a multiplicity of ways. there is the metro, bus, tram, trolley, taxi, route taxi, and also the possibility to ‘catch a car’. catching a car is like hitching for money. usually a much smaller sum than had it been a taxi. many drivers moonlight as cars for hire for a few extra rubles, and many others are not loath to do this on the way home from work.

around 3am. by the time masha arrived at home, i was beginning to gain consciousness. i don’t remember where i was, other than the fact that i had not left the perimeter of the aforementioned two rooms. this was the sequence of my
realizations:

i realized that i was alive.

i realized that i was myself.

i realized that i was in an uncomfortable position.

i realized that i was in an unfamiliar place.

i realized that i was in moscow.

… a few realizations later i had arrived at the one realization that compelled me to rise and take action: i realized that the people i came with were not around, that it was late and probably a good time to go home.

this process of realizations can be understood by analogy to a computer booting up. at some part of the night, my personal computer crashed and it was now rebooting, albeit in ‘safe mode’. in safe mode, i did not have access to all of my computational capacities. some went into safekeeping for the night. some did not return until much later the following day. i only had a small network of neurons to work with, and i had to trim my thought process to small digestible comprehensible packets of thoughts.

let me find sonya, i thought. she is the host, she must still be here. she will help me.

i soon realized that my vision was significantly impaired. to overcome this, i gave up on my right eye and closed it. with my left eye i squinted and concentrated as i had seen my grandmother squint when looking at my face to tell me apart from other grandchildren. composed in this way, i followed a relatively simple search algorithm around the rooms (like the algorithm of going through a maze by moving straight, and then turning to the right when
possible.)

rather than me recognizing sonya, it was she who earned a medal for face recognition, having recognized my lopsided squinting face. let’s get you home, she said. masha and yuri have already left. do you have any money?

i checked my wallet and discovered an unusual problem that smelled of world travel. i had 40 dollars (two twenties), 15 euros (a ten and a five) and twenty-five pounds (two tens and a five), but no rubles.

sonya put 200 rubles in my right hand, (for which i am not only indebted but also ooze gratefulness), and i cradled them safely as a five year old may hold on to a hidden piece of candy before life has taught him that chocolate melts in your hand.

outside of the theater, she let me roam around in place, while she flagged down potential cars for hire. the third car agreed to the destination and price, and without further ado, i collapsed into the passenger side seat and bid sonya farewell.

russian taxi driver.jpg

but this is not the end of the story.

the driver soon showed signs of not being such a premium person. when we pulled around the corner, he muttered: show me the loot. in a few logical iterations even in safe mode i made a plan to seem trustworthy, but to avoid this topic directly. i tried to lighten the tension with a conversation on another subject. i opened the window for some air. i closed it because it was cold. but mostly, i realized, it would be best to stay quiet.

then he showed again that he was not such a savory character, and asked you sure you know how much we agreed for? and, you know what happens to people who underpay? with a gold tooth he promised some unmentionable things.

my strategy clearly wasn’t working, but soon i realized why he had been so explicit with the money. he did not know where the place was. make note that it was a particular metro station, ‘nagornaya’, and not some obscure alleyway we were looking for. still, he circled about having lost the sense that we were going in the right direction, disbursing anger in a string of swear words here or a punch at the steering wheel there.

naively, i tried to help and took out the map from my pocket. using the squinting technique, i may have almost located where we were. but even then, i realized it would be hopeless to try to refocus on the street signs (partly because moscow is poorly labeled) and then back on the map. to look straight was already too much to ask of my impaired eyes for the night.

he pulled up to a metro station and said, this is it. he also grunted, give me the money. i did not recognize the place, but it was a metro stop and there was no evidence to the contrary — no clear label naming the stop ‘NOT NAGORNAYA’. besides, moscow metro stations are often expansive, and i figured i’ll go underground and emerge from another entrance where all will become clear.

i unclasped my hand containing the 200 rubles sonya placed there not 25 minutes ago. he took them and then he started to strangle me with the rough hands of a workman. give me another hundred, he said.

maybe i would have given him another hundred, but i did not have any. i was very calm at this moment. maybe because the part of my brain that is responsible for worrying was also out of commission, and if so, that is an important scientific discovery. anyhow, instead of worrying, i thought the following list of things:

i thought i can hold my breath for a long time. when i was younger i placed first and won a coveted ice cream soda at an underwater swimming competition in summer camp. so i have time to think of a plan.

i thought it would be good to make sure the door was unlocked and to locate the handlebar. (i tuned this thought into action, using my right hand.)

i thought it was important to make sure i had my possessions with me, and i tucked the map back into my pocket and tapped my passport and wallet which were in their proper places. (this was accomplished with my left hand.)

i thought, now is a good time to regain my airflow, even at the expense of a proper genial goodbye.

…at this point i mechanically punched the attempted murderer in the nose, jumped out of the car. i ran into the underground where there were many stray dogs warming themselves from the cold.

but even this is not the end of the story. it was a cold night in moscow and the station was not ‘nagornaya’.

40 minutes of mapwork and bipedaling saved me. it was a long 40 minutes filled with many courageous and ingenious navigational moments. at one point i disobeyed a policeman who gave me completely incorrect directions. at another less climactic point, i had to avoid conflict with some drunk hooligans.

when i got home, masha met me by the elevator. there was a trickle of saline fluid on her cheek and i wiped it off. her mother was also waiting up for me in the kitchen. there were crosswords of worry on both of their faces. my fingers were getting numb. we had tea, and we called sonya, and i felt completely sober and happy. happy to be alive.

this is not the end of the story, (but this time) only because it would be a shame to end it without some word of advice. should one avoid hired cars? no, they are helpful and cheap and most of the time a safer and more pleasant experience than mine. make a few reasonable precautions. be more selective with the driver and attempt to coincide with a more premium person. even so, sit in the back seat. this way it is harder for the driver to reach over and strangle you. when possible, carry a gun.

See related article in the San Francisco Chronicle.