1997 Weekend Review

As the year comes to a close, I sit here trying to decide what to include in my 1998 Christmas letter. I got a great response from last years letter with many asking me to do it again. Though I have kept track of my exciting weekends like last year, I decided to do something different. I will try to share with you some of my more interesting moments and stories to let you feel and understand that life on the road can be fun but also frustrating at the same time. I will then try to wrap up by giving you my own personal “Best of” lists. After many years on the road, I have eaten at many restaurants, slept in many hotels and toured more cities than I ever imagined.

Feb 8-12, (Carnaval, Rio de Janiero, Brazil) Wow! Being in Rio for Carnival. It was great! The highlight was of course the Samba Parade. The parade is competition between 16 of the best local Samba schools. Most of these are from the different slums around town. The parade goes for 2 nights with 8 schools competing each night. The parade starts at 7:00 PM and ends about 9 AM the next morning. Each school parades for around 1 hour 45 minutes. Each completely parades down the street before the next starts. Some of the schools had up to 10,000 dancers all dressed in colorful costumes. Some had more on than others. To watch the parade, Coca-Cola managed to get us private table seats in the VIP area right on the same level as the parade. Though we paid for the tickets out of our own pockets, it was well worth the price. We survived Carnival by watching the sunrise 3 of 5 mornings only to sleep most of the following day. We also used the holiday to do some local sightseeing. Taking the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf mountain, we watched the sun set over the city. The sun sets just behind the Christ statue on Corcovado mountain. If you’re there alone with a girl, it is quite romantic. Unfortunately, I was with a group of auditors! The next day we set off to see the Christ statue up close. We took a cog-wheel train which winds its way up the mountain. The statue overlooks the main downtown area and the views from the top are incredible. On the particular day we were there, there were no clouds or smog which made for great pictures. On the same weekend, a colleague and friend of mine, Jeff Perkins, also took the famous hang gliding flight over the Sao Coronado suburbs. Starting off in a rickety old car up just made it to the top barely. The instructor put the glider together and we made one practice launch to determine the speed of take-off. When the wind was just right, we took off high over the houses, hotels and slums below and had a peaceful 15 minute ride before we touched down light as feather on the beach below. It was fantastic!

Feb 22-25, (Fernando de Noronha, Brazil) Took 2 days holiday so that we could enjoy this Island off the coast of Brazil near Recife. It is an archipelago full of wildlife. Three colleagues and I booked a couple of Scuba dives. We got to see some sharks and eagle rays. The highlight was charting our own boat to go snorkeling with the Dolphins. The island is a breeding ground for them. It was again fantastic! We got in the water and after a few minutes we caught up with them and were swimming with them. You could just about reach out and touch them but they would stay just out of reach. The water was very warm and clear and we were able to take some great underwater shots with our cameras.

May 17- June 8, (Vladivostok, Russia) I was sent to Vladivostok for 5 weeks which is on the far eastern side of Russia about a 3 hour flight north of South Korea. (Admit it, go look it up in your Atlas.) Vladivostok was and still is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet (Subs and Battleships). It was formerly a closed city which meant no foreigners allowed. As a Russian, you could only visit if you had relatives living there. 18 Months ago, Coca-Cola opened an operation there in which we actually bottle and distribute our products. Currently only Coke, Fanta Orange, and Sprite are produced. (Diet Coke is shipped in via Hong Kong.) After 2 days of traveling, I finally made it. No major hassles other than upon arriving at the small Vlad airport, the Russian custom agents said that I had too much luggage. I have never had to pay money upon entering a country (only to the airlines before getting on a flight). To make a long story short, the agents made me pay cash $200 before they would let me out of the airport! (I did however get a receipt and I am sure they had a fun drunken night on the town that evening.)

As for the hotel, (called the Vlad Motor Inn) it looked and felt just like a road side Motel 6 straight out of America. The hotel was run by some Canadians. We did have electricity and hot water and at least the place was clean. The rest of the city had only 6 hours of electricity a day and no hot water. Our hotel was only 10 minutes from the plant but about 30 minutes from the city. We were pretty much stuck out in the middle of the woods in the middle of no-where. Other than the hotel restaurant and an Australian one around the corner, there are no other restaurants in the area. For 5 weeks, we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at one or the other.

During the audit, we had to visit 2 of our sales depots. The closest was a 4 hour drive. The other was a 12 hour overnight train ride to Khabarsvsk. We took the over-night trans-siberian railway as we had been told the planes were not safe especially to those cities. The train ride was no problem, however, when we went to get our return tickets we were told that we could not go to Vladivostok as it was a closed city and closed to us Foreigners. We explained to the lady that the city had opened two years ago and that we had just come from Vlad. No that wasn’t good enough. “Vladivostok is a closed city!” After 20 minutes of discussions and calling over a second agent, they finally agreed they would let us back in. (They probably also wanted a fun night on the town.)

Our weekends were pretty much non-existent as there were no flights out except on Saturdays and Tuesdays. We were informed about a Siberian Tiger Safari but found out later that after 12 years of operation, they had only seen a tiger 29 times. We dropped the idea. Every weekend was spent working so that we could get out as quick as possible.

Other than the Wall Street Journal which ran an article that the mayor had declared a State of Emergency (due to lack of electricity), the local newspaper had the following headlines: PLAGUE FOUND ON PORT RATS! (increasing numbers found recently) CROWDS BEATEN AT NIGHT CLUBS (Secret police were randomly going into clubs and bars and beating the people up for no reason (and taking their money).) We were very much ready to leave the place.

The following example gives an another idea of the type of people we were dealing with. Normally, the last day before we leave, we are required to shred our working papers and other confidential documents. The shredder happened to be in the same room as the copier machine. My colleague had been shredding paper for about 20 minutes when a Russian came in with 2 sheets of paper and stood and watched him for 5 minutes feed sheets into the shredder. Finally the Russian spoke something in Russian and my colleague said he could go ahead and use the machine since he still had more paper to shred. The Russian fed the sheets into the shredder and waited. He then started asking something in Russian and it then dawned on my colleague that he had instead wanted copies (the papers were invoices.) The guy had never seen a copier or a paper shredder before. We took the top off the shredder and showed him the bag of shredded paper. You should have seen the look of shock and disbelief in his eyes. We found out later that he was a customer who had been sent down the hall to copy the invoices. (At least he wasn’t one of our employees.) We died laughing for 30 minutes and I still laugh as I write this.

My last and final agonizing story from Russia was getting out. After paying my ticket and checking my bags, I proceeded to passport control. The agent was about to let me through when he saw that my Visa had expired 5 days before. (I was unaware.) The agent told me I could not leave and that I would have to go to the consulate to renew my Visa before they would let me out. The next plane out wasn’t for another 4 days. Can you believe that you need a Visa to get out? The plane began to board and I began to beg (and panic) practically on my knees asking them to let me out. I had $300 cash in my pocket and was prepared to make a “facilitating payment” when after 30 minutes of waiting in panic, they finally let me out as the plane was shutting its doors. As I boarded, the passengers gave me a big round of applause. (Needless to say, on the way to Seoul, I had a few vodkas.)

Due to the conditions, our management gave us three days R&R in Europe. I chose to go to Denmark and visit my good friends John and Elizabeth. Spent the days in nice warm weather and we used their Sailboat to sail up the coast of Denmark and over to an island off Sweden. It was definitely a nice break from the Far East of Russia.

Well those were my most memorable moments of 1997. I hope you enjoyed the tidbits. Though you probably think that my life is only glamour, I have tried to give you a little of both sides of the story.

Oct 4-11 (Bay Islands, Honduras) A colleague and friend of mine, Michael Calfee and I decided we needed a break and that we would go Scuba diving. Deciding that we didn’t want to haul our gear to the boat every day, we decided on a live-aboard dive ship called the “Wind Dancer” based in Honduras. There we slept, dove, ate, dove, drank, & dove every day (not particular in that order). We had a great time and met some fun people on board. The diving was perfect with warm water and lots of small animal life and great coral. Being an “Arms Reach from Desire”, we even managed to find a small vendor selling diet Cokes underwater. (See Christmas card!) It was the perfect way to go diving and we will definitely do it again.


copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Hopkins - all rights reserved
revised NOVEMBER 2008