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From Russia With Band-Aids

I really thought I was done being fleeced by Russians when I left Moscow. Today’s taxi ride proved that I was apparently wrong.

I’m here in San Jose to attend the Search Engine Strategies Conference (SES), staying at the Marriott, a hotel so experienced in hospitality that you’d think they’d have figured out the value & importance of providing a small shop in the lobby that sells Advil, band-aids and the like. Unfortunately this Marriott didn’t get the memo, and so when I found myself in need of band-aids and Bactine this afternoon, my only recourse was a Walgreens, which I know to be about three blocks from the hotel.

Whenever I travel, I seem to have the worst foot pain karma imaginable. I don’t mean a little bit of the “oh I’ve been on my feet all day and now they’re sore” kind of foot pain, I mean the teeth gritting, cold chills down my back, “can’t think about anything other than taking my shoes off” kind of foot pain. Every time I go on a trip, I set the firm intention of bringing sensible footwear, but try as I might, I just can’t seem to find the magic equation, and I can’t bring myself to wear Crocs. I must have stepped on a lot of people in a previous life, and now, sadly, I am paying for it.

A day & a half into my week long trip, I discovered that once again my footwear choice was an epic fail. The term “blisters” doesn’t even cover it. I needed band-aids, cotton balls, Bactine, medical tape, maybe some Vicodin, and I needed it all fast. Walgreens, a mere three blocks away, sounded like the other side of the Saraha to me, utterly unreachable by foot. Searching the conference for my colleagues, tracking down the valet ticket for the car (which was probably left up in someone’s room), and then driving the three blocks to Walgreens all felt like it would take more effort than it was worth.

An admittedly decadent but seemingly convenient option was jumping into a taxi and asking the driver to zoom me the three blocks to the store and wait out front while I dashed (read: limped) inside for band-aids. I cruised up to the taxi line and asked the first driver if he could accept credit cards, since I had no cash. The driver, whom I will call Oleg because hey, that’s his name and I have no wish to protect his identity, grunted in the affirmative, and so I jumped in and made my destination request.

Apparently I forgot to specify that I wanted to go to the Walgreens closest to the hotel, because Oleg decided to take me to the Walgreens somewhere on the other side of the city. At several points I calmly considered the possibility that Oleg was a serial killer convincingly masquerading as a taxi driver and that he was speeding me away to a brutal death. I also took several opportunities to remind him that it was Walgreens I wanted to go to, implying (I hoped), “Exactly where the bleep are you taking me? I know where Walgreens is, and it’s not five miles down the road…”

Eventually we did arrive at the store, and (relieved that I wasn’t actually being kidnapped) I popped inside and found all my needed items… Well, not so much the Vicodin, but most of the items… Just as I was about to get back into the cab, Oleg asked me with a typically Russian intonation, “Is not such a big problem to get cash out of ATM… Yes?”

What I should have answered is, “Well, yes, it’s actually going to cost me about 5 or 6 bucks in ATM fees and that really * is * a problem for me, which is why I asked you right up front if I could pay with a credit card.” Or else maybe I should have replied, “Gee, it’s unfortunate that you didn’t ask me before I went into the store, since I could have gotten cash back from the register. Unfortunately that’s not an option anymore so I guess you’ll just have to run my card if you want to get paid.” … But being the polite and accommodating (spineless?) person that I am, I acquiesced with a smile and went back to the ATM in the store. Ten bucks says Oleg kept the meter running while I was in there.

Cash obtained, I climbed back into the taxi and we traveled the 40 thousand blocks back to my hotel. We pulled up to the front door, and gulp… The meter read $21.50 (for what should have been a three block drive to Walgreens!). I handed Oleg two twenties, and he sighed deeply, and asked me, “Fifteen bucks change ok for you?”, handing me three fives with the expectation that I would say yes. The thought of slipping off one of my shoes and crashing a pointy heel down into his head did occur to me, but I am not the violent type. Also, I was in pain, and relief was just a short elevator ride away.

I’m not sure why this last act irritated me so much: social convention does dictate that I would give him some kind of a tip, and ultimately he saved me time by not just making change and then waiting while I handed him back the tip, which might have been more than $3.50 anyway. I guess it was the expectation that I would say yes to him charging me more than the already exorbitant meter price, or the fact that I felt like I’d been taken advantage of in at least three different ways, that really got under my skin.

But when it comes down to it, I can’t pin my frustrations on Oleg. Anyone who has spent any time in Russia will know that this is a hallmark description of a typical Russian cultural interaction. If I felt disgruntled after this taxi ride, I can only blame myself for not being more assertive.

What I find most amusing is that just this morning, as I was standing in the hotel bathroom putting on my makeup, I was wondering how a girl who majored in medieval Slavic history in college finds herself at a cutting edge technology conference just a few years later. I’ve always been a web geek, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch that I should be here at SES. But that left me wondering then, what role did Russia play in my life? Why the decade-long obsession that ultimately seems to have led to nowhere? Was I just “done” with Russia, or would the country & culture come back around into my life like Chekhov’s gun in the 5th act? My experience with Oleg just a few hours later seems like some kind of immediately manifested answer to these puzzling questions.

But seriously, all philosophical meanderings aside, if you ever find yourself in San Jose getting into a Rainbow taxi cab and you notice that the driver’s name is Oleg, get right back out as fast as you can. Just get out and find yourself another cab, or be prepared to get a fleecing…

Photo Credit: Stephan Geyer on Flickr