Lost in the grand design

Don’t drop your guard in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Nishiraj A. Baruah sips more that he can savour



She drags me, pulls me closer to her, holds me tight, and even as her boyfriend hums a peppy Russian folk number, I try to match steps with her. “Slow, slow, baby,” I tell her, “I can’t move so fast. My knee hurts.” But she wouldn’t listen. So I allow myself to go with her flow. The crooner is joined by his friends now, as they erupt into a chorus. A crowd gathers seeing us dance. Smiles on their faces, they cheer and they clap. I, the performer. More Rubles (Russian currency), coins and cigarettes dropped on the donation box, in this case, a hat. I can now feel her hands inside my jacket as she looks straight into my eyes. Wow!

This is St. Petersburg, Russia. The evening electric. The music intoxicating. The energy pounding. And the night? Pregnant with possibilities.

Crossing the line
Soon after we cross the Finnish border, we hit the Russian highways. People who holiday in Finland often makes St. Petersburg a part of the itinerary because of its proximity. And why not? A living breathing museum, this St. Petersburg, a historic city with Baroque and neoclassical buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, I am excited. I am about to enter the second largest city in Russia after Moscow and one of the greatest cities in the world.

Prior to that, our visas and passports are thoroughly checked by tough looking, no-nonsense Russian officials. They speak no English, ask me no questions, look at my face sternly and then at my photo on the passport, stamps the visa and I am through.


Streetcar named desire
It’s grand – that’s the first impression you get as you near the city once known as Leningrade. I check into the Ambassador hotel in the city centre. It’s not done – a massive city and I have just a few hours to explore. I have two options: Visit the Hermitage, a must-see museum. It is said that if you spend a minute seeing every picture at the Hermitage it would take you nine years to finish. And imagine, I have just an evening.

Forget it. Why go back to the past? Why not explore the second option: The street life, the contemporary culture, the present?

I start walking. After the quiet Finnish countryside, the bustling, bubbling energy of St Petersburg makes me spring back to life. And yes, there are people everywhere – surging ahead in pavements or waiting for the walk signal in crossroads. I can feel the vibrations in my body as I am drawn to explore its nooks and corners. I stop to look at the buildings: Grand old buildings, complete with domes. They look like fantasy castles from a fairly tale kingdom, only that these are real. Surreal rather under an inky sky. I love it. I love this city. A city on the move – solid and invulnerable.

And then I cross the broad streets, ask directions for shopping and land up in bag shops. I buy four from four different shops. Then I get tired, buy a Coke and sit on a street bench and watch the city move by. I catch a couple in a deep passionate kiss and take out my cam. “Hey do that again!” I tell them. “Like this?” the young boy asks, kissing his girlfriend on the mouth again. Wow, I get a great shot. I sit again, my limbs tired. But hey, it’s criminal to waste my time. I move.

Music makes me mad
It’s then that I see him. Playing the guitar on a street corner. I try to take a picture but the guy turns his back to me. Soon a 20-something girl comes forward with a hat. “Mony, mony,” she says. I drop a few Rubles and soon enough the guitar player lets me take his photograph. Song over, I ask him, “Do you do English numbers?” Sure, he does and sings a Metallica: Nothing else matters. I ask him about Russian rock, but he tells me: “I litool English. My girlfriend – she talks.”

So I turn to her. She works as a secretary and helps out her boyfriend in the evening. They are in this street corner every evening – some 6 of them. Soon I am jamming up with the group, drumming the Djembe (Afro drum). I have become one with the group and even urge passersby for contributions. They are naturally happy. “Where you staying?” one of them asks. I tell them. “Costly hotel. Stay with us.” they say. Good idea, but I will be gone tomorrow.

The music is warming up – it’s Bon Jovi now: Your clothes’re scattered all over the room/This place still stinks of your cheap perfume. One of their guitar players offers me a can. “Drink,” he says, “Pure Russian vodka!” I sip. Then another. And then another. And then she drags me to dance with her. Slowly, intimately and then fast and furious. Petersburg is paradise.

288_1680_948Rob report
The phone rings. I wake up with a start. “It’s the 7 am wake up call, sir,” a female voice tells me. Hey, I have a flight to catch. I jump out of the bed. But hey, what’s this? Why is my suitcase empty? Why are my clothes scattered all over the room? Have I done it myself? But why would I do it? Instinctively I reach for my phone. But where is the phone? My iPhone! I look at the side tables, I pull a few drawers. Not there either. And my digicam? Where is it, man? I look under the bed, feel my jacket pockets. Not, there. And my purse?? I turn over the pillows, the mattress, check the bathroom. No, not there too. And God, where is my passport? I begin to tremble.

I have been robbed. But how? When? What time did I come back to my room last night? Was there anyone with me? I look for signs, a strand of blonde hair maybe. Nothing. Yes, I remember dancing with a blonde. Yes, I did take a few sips from a can. But what after that? My mind draws a blank. I can remember nothing. Nothing at all.

Quickly I put my things (and myself) together, rush to the reception. “Here’s your passport, sir,” the frontdesk person offers. Relief pours in – yes, they took my passport before checking in. But no, no sign of the other valuables.

I climb into my waiting cab. The flight is just an hour away. I am upset; disturbed. But hey, I reason, these are items I can always buy back, right? Would I be able to buy the experience I had? Never. Always on the lookout for a story, have I not got one?

And St Petersburg? Well, it’s too great a city to be belittled by petty fly-on-your-nose nuisance. My salute remains.

– nrbaruah@yahoo.com

– St. Petersburg is located in the delta of the Neva River on numerous islands

– The road from Helsinki (Finland) to St Petersburg (Russia) is called the King´s Road. This is the road Russian Tsar took when the whole area was under Russia.
– Besides, St. Petersburg, you can also take a cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm
– Attractions include The Hermitage Museum, The Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theater, The Imperial Palace and Park ensemble at Peterhof
– Local currency is the Russian ruble



Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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