Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Living on the Edge: Tales of Danger Abroad, Part I

Plodding up the steps from Gagarin Metro Station, I tried to catch up to my companion.  It was the end of a long day of missionary work and we were just about back to our apartment.  The sun had set hours previously, one of the curses of the long Siberian winter.  Looking up through my fur shapka, I could see my companion ahead of me by a full flight of steps.  I had been in Russia for about one month.  Adjusting to the long nights, the language, the food, and walking everywhere proved to be difficult.

I couldn't find a picture of Gagarin Station.

As I began to make the extra effort to catch up, I suddenly felt a hand on my arm.  I stopped to see a lady, a pretty lady with a bit of her blonde hair sticking out of her shapka.  With darting eyes she started to speak to me rapidly in Russian.  The language was still incomprehensible. 

In my best Russian I asked, “Will you please repeat yourself?  I’m not Russian.”

Shaking her head, she muttered something else and started to walk away.  At that moment my companion made his appearance.  Looking back he had seen me struggling to converse with a possible investigator and returned to help.

He quickly picked up the conversation.  At first she shook her head as though she didn’t want to speak with us any longer.  Then she nodded and turned to walk up the stairs.  My companion followed her, turning to tell me to follow.

Unsure of what was going on, I again tried to catch up.  As I followed I saw a large man standing at the top of the stairs looking nervous.  The lady looked at him quickly and almost imperceptibly shook her head.  I don’t think my companion saw it.

We turned toward the nearest apartment building.  As we entered I realized that we were being set up for a robbery.  My companion realized it about the same time I did.  I turned toward the door ready to attack her accomplice.  The lady, suddenly seeming nervous and scared, quickly said thank you and ran up the stairs.

Looking at my companion I said, “I think we’re about to get robbed.  What did she say to you?”

“She said that she was scared of someone at the top of the stairs and asked if we could escort her to her apartment building.  But she acted very strangely, especially once I walked up.”

“We need to be careful going out that door in case someone is waiting for us.”

Carefully we made our way out the door.  Nobody was waiting for us and we made it home safely.  After discussing the situation we realized that she thought I was alone and a possible target.  Once she realized that I wasn’t a Russian and that I wasn’t alone, she no longer wanted to speak with us.  At the top of the stairs she was waving off her accomplice realizing the risk of robbing two foreigners may not be worth the gain.

It was an early lesson about being careful, especially in strange, foreign places.

Throughout my travels abroad I’ve had a number of what might be considered dangerous and frightful situations.  Here’s a quick spoiler alert: I didn’t die during any of these events, nor did I even get injured in any meaningful way.

In the hopes of providing not only some entertainment, but also some travel safety tips, I’m going to share some more of my experiences.

Russians love to celebrate the New Year.  It’s the biggest national holiday of the year.  Families and friends gather for dinner and celebrations.  The night often culminates in a walk after midnight.  My first New Year’s Eve in Russia rolled around after just two weeks in the country.  As 1994 came to a close, my companion and I wrapped up our few teaching appointments.  We rushed out to the street hoping to find a taxi to take us to a party with some members of the branch. 

Getting a taxi in Russia normally is a simple affair.  You stand next to the road and put your hand out.  Any driver of any car may decide to pull over to offer you a ride.  Sometimes they charge something and sometimes they do it just out of the goodness of their heart.  On this night, however, there were few cars on the road and the drivers who were out were rushing to their own parties.  Walking in the general direction of our party we continued to try to flag down a driver.

Just as we were about to accept the fact that we would have to walk a few miles in the cold and dark and arrive late, a Lada pulled over.  There was a driver with his friend in the front seat.  My companion quickly negotiated a fare for our destination and we climbed into the backseat.  As our driver accelerated the car on the icy road the smell of alcohol hit me.  Both our driver and his friend were quite drunk and were in a hurry to get us to our destination. 

It was my first experience riding in a car with a drunk driver.  For fifteen minutes, that felt like an hour, I was in a car with a drunk driver who was driving fast on an icy road.  As I pictured myself lying on the side of the road with my body mangled, I realized that many of the other drivers on the street likely were drunk as well.  Sitting in that car, fearing that I might end up dead or in a Russian hospital, I thought of the Lord’s promise in Doctrine & Covenants 84:88:

“And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face.  I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”

As we slid around corners and narrowly avoided hitting other cars I knew that promise was being fulfilled at that moment.  Of course, following that experience, I always tried to check for a strong scent of any alcohol before I would climb into a vehicle.  We had a wonderful party that evening with great food.  We walked back to our apartment.

Taxis have been a source excitement and adventure for me during my time overseas (and a few times in the States as well).  A few months after surviving the drunken New Year’s Eve ride, another elder and I were flagging down a taxi to get to a baptismal interview.  We were thrilled to see a black Volga pull over to speak with us.  Volgas were larger than most other vehicles on the road at the time so it was much more enjoyable to be inside them. (Not to mention that they tended to have nice radios, affording us an opportunity to listen to some music for a few minutes.)

Russian Volga

The driver quickly agreed to take us.  I got into the front seat and we took off.  The driver kept glancing over at me.  Figuring that he was just interested to see an American, I got ready to speak with him about the church. 

Before I could open my mouth he asked, “Are you from America?”


“Are you one of those Mormon missionaries?”

“Yes.  Have you heard about the Mormons?”

He reached down to the floorboard, pulled out a .45 caliber pistol, and rested it on his lap.

“Yes.  I know about the Mormons.  Our priest told us about you.  You here from America to ruin our Russian culture and Orthodox faith.”

I swallowed hard, looking from the gun to his face and back again to the gun. 

Waving the gun he said, “I ought to just shoot you now.  Why shouldn’t I just shoot you now to protect our Russian Orthodox faith?”

With that I explained what I knew about the love of Jesus Christ and his desire to help and love everyone.  I expressed my certainty that Jesus would not condone the killing of someone who simply was trying to share his message with others. 

Eventually we arrived at our destination.

“Are you going to shoot us?”

“No, I won’t shoot you today, “ he said as he tucked the gun back under the seat.

“How much do we owe you for the ride?”

“Nothing.  I enjoyed the conversation.”

After saying farewell, I and the other missionary were ecstatic to be alive still.  That, however, wasn’t the end of the story.  A week later we were in the same place trying to flag down a taxi.  The same driver pulled over. 

Looking in the window I smiled and said, “Hello.  Are you going to shoot us today?”

“No.  I won’t shoot you today.”

“Will you give a ride at no charge.”

“Yes, no charge for the ride.”

We again made it to our destination safely.  But the next time we needed a taxi, we flagged it down from a different street.  Sadly this was not my most frightening ride in a taxi.  That would come years later.

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