July 24, 2011

On Sunday morning we make our way aboard three buses to the airport, for the chartered flight to Murmansk. We don’t spend any time in Murmansk; we’ll see it at the end of the trip. Russia is the only country I’ve ever been to where your bags are X-rayed when you leave the plane. I’ve never been entirely sure why, but I’m told that one reason is to detect unauthorized amounts of currency. Upon arrival we transfer to other buses for the trip to the port. It’s a long ride in the rain, over hills that skirt the town, and the overcast day makes the drab city look even grayer.

The hills are alive with the sound of Murmansk. Well, sort of.

Aboard the ship, the passengers, 125 in all, begin to get to know each other. They are from all over the world; in alphabetical order: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Sri Lanka (he will be the first citizen of his country ever to visit the Pole), Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and the U.S. Quite an eclectic group. The previous trip, immediately before ours, held only passengers from China and Taiwan; the third and last one, a Japanese charter immediately after, will also carry passengers from Argentina, France and Taiwan. Most on this sailing are adults, some older, but there are a few children.

Murmansk harbor and the bow deck, seen from the bridge deck.

The ship departs as Russian nationalistic music plays loudly. Outside the harbor we have a long, unscheduled delay for an official inspection, but we eventually get under way. When I ask what’s causing the delay, I hear, for the first of many times on this trip, “It’s Russia,” which I’ve heard many times before, an all-purpose way of explaining away the bureaucracy by saying, “Don’t bother asking.”

The bow deck.

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