Feb 25, 2014 3:54 PM
Besides several matryoshka dolls (the Russian dolls within a doll), the multi-colored, must have Sochi Olympics mittens, the Russian vodka for mom and dad (I'm sure it will only be used for special occasions) and a number of other gifts that I still have no idea how I stuffed into my luggage, I am bringing a countless number of memories of my journey to Russia home with me.
While this may not make much sense, my trip was everything I thought it was and wasn't going to be. So, let me explain.
First of all, I knew security was going to be tight but nothing prepared me the endless and intense screenings that become part of everyday life within the "Ring of Steel".
Upon your arrival you were issued two credentials, one from NBC, the other a lamented placard, that identified your security clearance and served as your work visa. Lose it and you were going to be covering the Olympics from your hotel room. I practically showered with the the thing around my neck. I'm sure for the next few weeks I will experience seconds of panic as I leave my house and realize I am not wearing my credential bling.
There were metal detectors, ex ray machines, wands, dogs, and pat downs at just about every "zone" you entered. Once in, you could expect passing through at least one other security check point. NBC Senior Correspondent, Jay Gray, whose work station was next to ours said "I have been patted down everyday for the past month and I'm starting to like it." Funny but half true.
On the other side of this was all of the of misconceptions about Sochi. Sochi is actually a city about 20 miles north of Adler, where the coastal cluster is located.
Media outlets were strongly encouraged to not go to Sochi. I went anyway, banding with two other news crews to secure an unauthorized van that the driver actually took the tracking device out of for the trip. It was nothing like I expected. There were no check points, vehicle searches, no dogs, we never went through security. We actually just got out of the van and wandered unimpeded, shooting whatever we wanted.
What I discovered there was a vibrant, beautiful city. Colorful new high rises have appeared over the last couple of years, and other businesses line the streets. There are parks crowded with families and the seaport lives up to the it's billing as the "Russian Riviera".
But for me the people were the most fascinating part of my journey. Most of the young people speak at least some english and have few memories of communist rule there.
They believe they have real freedom here but I never lost that gut feeling of being watched.
The older folks either don't speak english or will tell you they don't. They clearly remember the old days and they all seem to possess a grimness they cannot shed. They may feel more free to speak their minds but old habits die hard and I think they figure why risk trouble.
Maybe it was the excitement of the Winter Olympics taking place in their country but optimism does exist. While they aren't fond of Vladimir Putin the people I talked to believe he is making things happen in their country and most of it good. When it comes to civil rights that's another story. And for another blog.
Now that I have had a day to reflect (and actually sleep for more than 4 hours) I can tell you when I touched down in Russia 25 days ago I had no idea what the hell I had gotten myself in to, I now know, that despite all I have done, this trip will remain one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I thank all of you who came along for the ride.
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