Mike Bloom is back home from Lake Baikal after an extraordinary journey home.
Home at last!
Thanks to all of you who were rightfully worried about my getting back to the USA.
Being in Baikal doesn’t exactly provide a true version of life on the outside. Baikal’s mystical powers are rooted in its isolation.
When I left for Baikal kids were still going to school, Purell was readily available, and face masks were on the shelves at Walgreens. Obviously, things changed quickly while I was gone but in Baikal the effects of the coronavirus on the real world was significantly muted. Plus, we had no television, no radio, no newspaper, no magazines and very little internet. I assumed no news was good news
My first inclination I might have problems getting home was when Delta sent me an email stating the departing flight I booked two months ago was cancelled.
They rebooked me on Air France flight through Amsterdam but in true airline fashion my new reservation included an 8-hour layover in Amsterdam and a 12 hour layover in Atlanta. I later learned I was flying through Atlanta because the Minneapolis airport was closed to direct flights from Europe.
Because of the extensive layovers I was actually happy when later that day Air France then told me that their flight was cancelled. I was then rebooked through Paris and on to Dallas. However, when the Paris airport was closed to foreigners, my reservation was cancelled. I then borrowed Joerg Bohn’s phone and rebooked my Monday flight flying direct from Moscow to New York.
And, of course, being is the middle of Siberia doesn’t help. It creates all kinds of logistical issues. First, I had no cell service in Baikal and the internet connection was marginal at best. But more problematic is the fact that Baikal is a 5-hour car ride to the airport and an 8-hour flight to Moscow. Plus, it is no easy feat to find a cab driver willing to drive 5 hours from Irkutsk down a dirt road to pick me up and then turn around and drive 5 hours back to the airport.
Tuesday night I learned that the other Americans in Baikal,Chris Berger and his girlfriend Marci, had already made the decision to leave early. When I discovered that Marci had already secured a cab ride to the Irkutsk airport for Wednesday evening, I took that as a sign and decided I should go with them. It was a difficult decision to make but I knew it was the right decision. Many of the European sailors had already pulled out because several European countries were closing their borders. I didn’t think I wanted to be in Russia if they closed their border.
So I booked an Aeroflot flight flying direct to New York. I was on the first available flight. But that flight was cancelled. I then got lucky because when I tried to rebook the flight I found a seat on a plane leaving Thursday morning.
Wednesday night Chris, Marci, and I jumped in the cab and drove the 5 hours to the airport in Irkutsk. We arrived in Irkutsk about 10 pm. Chris and Marci went to a hotel. Since I had to be back at the airport at 3 am, and was too cheap to spend money on a hotel, I went to the airport.
I got to the airport in Irkutsk about 11 pm and waited till 3 am to check in for the 5am Thursday morning flight. At exactly 3 am, the Aeroflot gate agent appeared at the ticket counter. She was very stern and definitely not happy with my 2 oversized duffle bags and my way too heavy gun case full of runners. She spent the next 30 minutes calculating the cost of the oversized and overweight baggage and asking me questions in fluent English about the content of my bags. I think she took pleasure in telling me the overweight bags would cost $500 to get home, double what I paid when I flew the other direction. Of course, as soon as I questioned the exorbitant price, she no longer could speak English. Thus, I did the only thing I could do, I slid my visa across the counter and using the best sarcasm possible I said “thank you.” Miraculously, her English returned just long enough to tell me that even though I had purchased comfort class with extra leg room neither this flight nor my flight from Moscow to New York had comfort class seats. Plus, If I wanted a refund, I had to call the number on the back of a card she gave me, but I couldn’t call till the office opened at 9 am, some three hours after my plane departs.
The flight from Irkutsk to Moscow was a painful 8 hours. After a 2 hour layover I then flew an even more painful 10 hours from Moscow to New York (JFK). Surprisingly, getting through customs was a breeze. It was almost nonexistent. There was no customs to speak of. Nobody even bothered to ask me about the gun case, let alone look inside. Even more surprising, there was no real heath check. Other than completing a short health questionnaire and walking by a guy who took my temperature using one of those temporal thermometers, you wouldn’t think coronavirus is a global issue.
While in the custom area I noticed my bags were tagged to go to Detroit, not MSP. Predictably, nobody was at the Delta counter so I was forced to leave the customs area and go upstairs to the Delta ticket counter. Once there I learned that Delta had cancelled my flight to Minneapolis along with all the other flights that night to Minneapolis. The next available flight was the next day at 4 pm.
At this point, I had not slept for about 30 hours. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t bear the thought of a 24 hour layover. This was the 7th flight that had been cancelled!
Fortunately, I had enough sense to check my Delta app. I did what the Delta agent could not do. I found a Delta flight leaving in 90 minutes out of LaGuardia. After a quick cab ride from JFK to LaGuardia I walked onto a near empty plane and arrived in Minneapolis early Thursday evening.
Glad to be home. Glad we came home when we did. Twelve hours after I arrived, both JFK and LaGuardia closed because air traffic controllers have tested positive for coronavirus. It is a trend that will not reversed anytime soon.
Despite my expectations, I was not quarantined, unless you count my wife who says she won’t come within 6 feet of me, but that might not be coronavirus related. Still, the CDC says symptoms typically appear within 5 days of exposure so I’ll hang low till next week.
So that’s my Baikal experience. Honestly, the good parts of the trip clearly outweigh the hassles of getting home. I’d go back in heartbeat.