Don’t know how lucky you are, boy.
In hindsight, unleashing a group of eighth grade boys in communist Russia may not have been the best idea.
But as one of said eighth grade boys, it sure seemed like a great idea to me! Two weeks in the USSR with my best friends, limited adult supervision, and a thriving black market hungry for American dollars. What could be better or more exciting than that?
And we hardly went unprepared. We were led by a teacher with Russian relatives, who had fifteen years’ experience escorting groups of young American students behind the iron curtain. (No doubt so that he could go visit friends and family for free as the “tour organizer.”) And in his capacity of fearless leader (who, like it or not, was in at least some way responsible for our well being while over there), he spent weeks prior to our departure loading us up with helpful and practical information to assist us in navigating that thrilling, and at times terrifying, very foreign society. Tidbits such as:
- No one wants rubles. Plan on bringing large amounts of small American bills to use for everything from trading on the black market to tipping chamber maids, cab drivers, and pretty much anyone who renders you a “service” of any kind.
- You are an American. This will be known by all you encounter long before you ever open your mouth. Tipping is not only expected, it is required. Doing so properly will keep those you tip from stealing from you.
- For the limited expenses for which rubles are a necessity (i.e. anything official or government related, museums, admission to cultural events/institutions) you will get a much better “exchange rate” on the black market. Do not exchange money at banks or currency exchanges.
- When using American dollars (i.e. all the time), whatever you do, practice the utmost discretion and do not ever, EVER let yourself be observed doing so.
- Lying on customs forms is not really “lying,” per se.
My god, could a trip be any more exciting???
Little did I know that, towards the end of our fortnight, I would find out just how exciting it could be...