It was supposed to be a simple trip. I would arrive in Saint Petersburg, Russia to spend the Christmas and New Year holidays with my friends in their ministry home 30 miles south of the city. This was my first trip there during the holidays. After New Year’s Day, I was flying from Pulkovo to see my friends in southwest Ukraine near the Romanian border.
I booked a round trip ticket from Newark, NJ to Saint Petersburg, Russia departing December 28th and returning January 14th. Inside this time frame I had a round trip planned from Pulkovo’s domestic terminal to L’viv connecting through Kiev. It was a simple plan, but the experience was anything but simple. I have never had such a stressful, but life changing trip. It changed the way I look at changes, obstacles and people.
Just a few days before Christmas we had a great amount of snow that effected the whole east coast. Flying out of Newark meant I would park the van in the offsite lot 1 mile from the airport. I’ve used this parking service many times, but when I got there, I was waived off because the lot was full. All flights had been blocked from coming to EWR, so the lot was full. I was forced to park at the airport for only $33/day and I would be gone for 18 days, yeah!
The airport was a zoo with thousands of people clamoring to catch flights out from there after being delayed for three days. The flight was scheduled for 5:30 pm departure to St. Petersburg making a stop in Copenhagen. The flight was delayed for 5 ½ hours due to a failed starter in engine #2. It’s really nice to have those things taken care of before takeoff, so it’s all good.
Since the flight left so late there was no way I would make the connection to St. Petersburg. I waited in Copenhagen until new arrangements could be made with Baltic Air; never heard of them. I was an unexpected passenger so that meant only some of my bags would travel with me. As the turboprop taxied down the tarmac, I recognized my bag outside sitting on the sideline. I knew it would be a miracle if I ever saw it again. It held the contents for my friends in Turka, Ukraine. The weather in Copenhagen was very cold, windy and heavy snow falling.
The Baltic Air flight was scheduled to stop in Riga, wherever that was! Oh, its Latvia’s capital city and birthplace of the Christmas tree, according to the travel magazine in my seat back pocket. We were no sooner airborne when I saw this woman in the front of the aircraft get out of her seat and walk in my direction. She came to the row I was in and stopped, without saying anything sat down next to me and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Sasha”! Oh, did I mention she was the slim looking not too tall blonde with deep set blue eyes Scandinavian type. Sasha was on her way to Saint Petersburg to catch a train heading to Siberia. She is a translator working on a train taking Buddhists across Russia on a traveling conference tour. By this time the trip was taking on a life of its own as Sasha and I talked about our lives, what we did, and hoped to do.
When Sasha and I arrived in Pulkovo airport, she proved to be this irreplaceable angel helping with all the paper work associated with filing the lost baggage. Seriously, I need to fill out the form four times because you don’t use carbon paper forms. No one at the counter spoke English and my Russian is at the “hello, my name is” level. After completing the paperwork, Sasha and I met Zhenya, who was there from Restoration House. He’s my ride to somewhere familiar. He thought it was cool that I was accompanied by my new friend. I remember his words in that English voice with a Russian accent, “Huh, I see now, Roy, you move fast”! It was his way of humoring me. Zhenya, along with other friends of mine, knew that I lost my wife of 40 years to cancer 1 ½ years earlier. He was impressed with my new friend, Sasha, at my side.
It was great being at Restoration House again. My friends, Kent, Todd, Olga and the residents at the house were a very welcomed sight after such a long trip. Christmas and New Year are a great time to be in Russia. I would be spending the bulk of my time there in Nickol`skoye until January 10th when I was to fly from Pulkovo to L’viv, Ukraine.
Christmas in mother Russia is actually a secondary holiday when compared to New Year’s Eve. It is an orthodox holiday occurring on the 7th of January. New Year’s Eve or Snovum-Godum, is huge with massive celebrations. A small group of us from the house went downtown to join the festivities. There was a party going on in city center with fireworks and tug-o-war in the snow. I think half the people were drunk, but they were celebrating. Father Frost was leading a parade of forest creatures around the Yolka Tree which looks similar to the Christmas tree. It’s like watching something out of Monty Python, a strange combo of Christmas and Halloween all rolled into one. People everywhere were wearing rabbit ears. It was the year of the rabbit. Who knew? With temperatures in the single digits, by 3am, we were ready to head back to the house.
The parties at Restoration House were filled with laughter, food, friends and family. It was a memorable season for me. The coziness of holidays with friends was about to be ramped up a few notches by new challenges.
January 10th I was flying from Pulkovo to Kiev and Kiev to L’viv. When I got to the airport that morning, I was able to collect my lost bag that was sent from Copenhagen to Helsinki. It arrived the night before. The flight for Kiev actually left on time. It was the only flight that left on time. I arrived in Kiev and proceeded to the departure gate for the connecting trip to L’viv. It was 11:30 am when I arrived. My plans were to get to see my friends Jim and Sandy McCann by Monday afternoon in Turka, a four hour drive from L’viv.
The flight information board showed the flight going to L’viv was cancelled. The weather in L’viv was very foggy. All the snow on the ground was greeted with an unusual warming pattern for January, and the result was fog, heavy thick fog. Next flight would be ……..That flight was cancelled and the next flight would be ……….. This process continued for twelve hours, and at 11:15 pm we were finally boarding the plane. The flight went on to L’viv and was making its descent for landing when the plane pulled its nose back up and tilted to the right. I asked another passenger what was going on and he said, “Pilot cannot land in L’viv because it is too foggy”. We’re heading back to Kiev and arrived back in the terminal at 1:30 am Tuesday. I went to the terminal and slept, sort of. I learned how to sleep on those rows of chairs that are fastened together by putting your legs under and through the arm rests while sort of clinging to your baggage. Ouch!
I woke at 6 am, looked at the flight information boards only to see that the next flight to L’viv was at 8:30 am, and it was delayed indefinitely. Ok, so I have a situation here. It’s Tuesday morning in Kiev. I’m on my way to see my friends with precious little time remaining, because my flight back to the states is Thursday at 9:05 am from Pulkovo International.
My friend in L’viv, Ulyana, was texting me asking for information of my arrival. I told her what happened with the flight. We started talking about me taking a train to L’viv. The next train leaves later that morning for a ten hour long ride. I was being tempted to just turn around, return to St. Petersburg ASAP and play it safe for my return to Newark. I prayed, “Lord shall I take the train, wait for a plane and get there sooner than ten hours”? I heard “train”. Lord, if I take the train, I won’t get there until very late, leaving me one day with my friends. Not kidding, here is what He said, “It’s Better to be in my house for one day than a thousand elsewhere”.
I found the bus outside the terminal that went to the train station. Ulyana texted information to me and gave me the train information so I would buy the right type of ticket for the right train, right? All this sounds pretty easy, but remember, everything is in Ukrainian. Signs, ticket office information, departure times, etc. The great thing is at least the numbers are the same, and so carefully matching the numeric information from my friend to the numeric information on the track information, I was able to find the right train.
Ulyana instructed me to buy food at the McDonalds next to the station. I went there pulling a large suitcase and shouldering a backpack. One of the drawbacks of traveling alone is the complications that come along like standing in line at a McDonalds waiting for food and needing to use the restroom at the same time while you’re surrounded by a horde of people all needing to do the same thing. So, you just do what you have to do, and leave your bags with total strangers who spoke Arabian, I think, keeping them safe. Safe? I went to the toilet, bought my food, talked to a guy in the next line who I heard on a cell speaking English, ask him for directions to the track number printed on my ticket, returned and reclaimed my bags and went back to the station. Once again, I was realizing how God engineered all of that.
So I board the train and am escorted to my compartment. We open the door and see three men already at home in their respective places having lunch they brought from home. I clumsily enter with my huge bags and food from McDonalds. The aroma that wafted from that small berth was amazing. I stowed by bags under my bunk for the ten hour trip and joined the other three at the tiny table between our beds. I pulled out my jar of Maxwell House, and offered them all some coffee. We ate and drank like relatives who hadn’t seen each other for years. I felt like it would have made a really cool commercial for Maxwell House. For the next ten hours we would be eating, drinking, talking and sleeping together in this tiny space. Of the three Ukrainian men, one spoke English and a very interesting conversation followed. It was one of those down to earth, let’s get real moments that do not happened every day when people are connected by the heart, without the pomp of arrogance.
It was so hard for them to believe that an American would be on that train traveling by himself to visit friends. I got big kudos for that, and the coffee didn’t hurt either!!! I was living in a dream.
Ulyana and Senia met me at the train station at 9:30 that evening and we started the long drive to the village of Turka. We arrived safely at the house at about 1:00 am. My friend Sandra was still up and we had a chance to say hello, and after something to eat, I went to bed as a happy camper.
After breakfast the following morning, Christina took me around the neighborhood introducing me to some of the folks who lived close by. Telling you what I saw in terms of pain and poverty does not describe what I saw and felt as I looked into blank faces riddled with grief and decades of pain. One neighbor lives in a two room house. One room was a combination of kitchen, bath and living space and bedroom all rolled into one room. The other room was for the family cow. The log structure had walls that leaked, sagged, but amazingly stood, holding up a roof that was more of a sieve only letting part of the rain inside. The few windows in the tiny cabin had most of the glass missing, tattered curtains blowing out through the shards of glass.
Another neighbor had eight kids. I didn’t see any parents or adults of any kind, just small children. I remember looking around the kitchen and seeing the simple wood fired stove with a pot on top that had something in it, but not sure it was edible. The little boy in the house couldn’t speak, because of a trauma he suffered from falling into the stream in front of their home. That was three years before I met him that day. This region is so dark.
That afternoon before dinner, the whole McCann family came together to love on Jesus and those in that warm friendly living room. Many of the children shared what God was doing in their lives. They would sing, read scripture. Dad (Jim) would tell them how proud he was of them. Then later one by one these little giants came and laid their hands on me and prayed for me, followed by giving me a financial offering from them. I have never felt such a mixture of gratefulness, love, humility, power, etc. all at the same time, especially from children.
My stay with the McCann family was short, but oh so good to be with my friends. I remembered what God said to me, telling me it was better to be in His house for one day, than a thousand elsewhere.
Thursday, January 13th we’re up at 5:00 am making the drive back to L’viv. The flight from L’viv to Saint Petersburg will make a stop in Kiev. My plan had me spending a final night back at Restoration House before leaving the next morning for Newark. The flight leaving L’viv is late, causing me and others to miss our connection in Kiev. Now there is a frenzy at the Aerosvit customer service desk in Kiev and I am in a sea of people in complete chaos looking for the same thing, a new ticket issued from the airline to continue our journey.
In this churning sea of angry people I met a woman who spoke some English. Somehow we hooked up with two other men, both Russian. We were all pursuing the ticket re-issue and when we were finally successful in getting them, we agreed to have dinner together in the airport, since our flight was not leaving until another four hours.
Dinner was great. A real cross cultural, cross everything kind of experience. When you’re a single man my age traveling in Russia or Ukraine, it can only have one purpose in their mind. The business of human trafficking legal or otherwise is huge in this part of the world. When I told them I was a pastor from America visiting friends, their interest was piqued to say the least.
One of our dinner companions, a young Russian psychologist, who could speak fluent English asked me, “What kind of pastor are you”? After going down the list of questions from are you orthodox, catholic, protestant and everything in between, to which I answered “no”. They were very confused and wanted to know, “then what church are you from”?
“I’m simply a follower of Jesus Christ. I take care of His sheep”. The young clinician spoke up, “I too am a believer in Jesus”. I replied, “Wonderful” or something like that. “Tell me about that”, I continued.
“I have my priest, my doctrines, my traditions and the sacraments”.
Without thinking about what I’m going to say, I said with a pen in my hand now, I drew a square on my napkin, “So on this side you have your priest, here on this side you have doctrines, here sacraments, and here traditions. And you are in the center of this”? Pointing to the square.
“It looks like you’re in a box, maybe prison”!
With his lip quivering, he began to cry and said, “What do you mean”?
“Why do you need a priest”? “God made you to be the priest”. “God desires you with no one in between”.
At that point, our female friend said to him, “I like what he has to say”!
The clinician was visibly shaken with a realization that he was suddenly aware of something that somehow he already knew, but when I put it into words, he instantly was convicted, exclaimed, “Oh, this is most therapeutic to me”!
Hey, he is a counselor! It was a very powerful moment and I saw it. We talked much about Jesus and how God’s plan for our lives is to be one with Him.
Our flight was late leaving Kiev. We had a scheduled stop in Moscow as a result of having new tickets issued. By now you’re catching on – I missed the connecting flight to Saint Petersburg. My time is running out since I had a scheduled flight from Pulkovo to Newark at 9:05 am the next morning. I realized I would not be spending the night at Restoration House. Instead, I spent the night in a flight terminal in Moscow with strange new friends.
I missed my flight to Saint Petersburg along with six others. We talked to the desk clerk at Aeroflot Russian Airlines about a ticket to Saint Petersburg, which flew out at 6:45 am arriving in Pulkovo at 8:05. To make things more interesting, Aeroflot did not guarantee a ticket until 5:30 that morning. Plenty of time, right? Wrong answer.
Pulkovo is divided into two terminals like every other airport in Russia. Pulkovo’s international terminal is roughly 8 miles from its domestic side. Well, it was another night of sleeping on a floor in an airport terminal waiting for a ticket to be issued. By 5:30 we all had our tickets to Saint Petersburg. This flight actually left on time.
My friend Zhenya was waiting for me and after taking another fifteen precious minutes to gather my luggage, we hopped into his car and raced off to Pulkovo International. It is Friday morning rush hour in a city of six million people with a fresh ten inches of snow coming down. I don’t need to tell you, but we arrived at check in after the counter closed for the flight to Newark Liberty. I yelled in the middle of the lobby, “I need to be on that plane”!
Someone called so and so and the next thing I knew, I was being escorted down some other hallways and was ejected out onto the tarmac to get on the plane. I found my seat at 9:15. Sat down and cried. Yup, I cried! Emotional release I guess. Our short first leg of the trip had us stopping in Stockholm. I walked into the terminal lush with colors and smiling faces. It reminded me of the scene in “Field of Dreams”. Is this heaven I wondered?
I learned a lot on this trip. It was a real life changer in many ways.
- It’s okay to go with the flow of circumstances and in most cases, necessary
- Pretend you’re the water in a river. Obstacles in the river are nothing more than points where you’re direction of flow is changed
Russian proverb – “You want to get there quickly, take plane” “You want to get there on time, take train”