The departure lounge at Sheremetova 1 set the tone for our trip to Sochi. It was packed. There were babushkas who had been on major shopping trips and had huge parcels wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. There were business men returning from wheeling and dealing, looking very smart and slightly sinister, carrying impenetrable briefcases. There were older men who looked like farmers carrying crates of chickens. All were dressed in dark colours except our group. We stood out like sore thumbs as foreigners because of our brightly coloured clothes.
We walked to the Aeroflot (Аэрофлот—Российские авиалинии) plane blissfully unaware that this would be a flight like no other we had been on. The plane was a very old Boeing 737, and unusual. Getting into the plane was fine but it seemed to be 2 storeys high. Most of the baggage was left loose below and the seating was accessed by climbing up a wooden ladder. At the back of the plane was what can only be described as a huge wooden wardrobe. Here people hung their coats and left their hand luggage, including the chickens. There was free seating so we were scattered around but settled down quickly, fastening our seat belts. A rather severe looking air stewardess came round immediately and gave everyone a plastic cup ~ empty. The engine roared and the plane started taxiing. Another severe and very blonde stewardess came round and filled all our plastic cups with Coca Cola. Just then the plane lifted off steeply, the cups tipped over, and we were all soaked in said Coca Cola! Not the ideal way to start a 4 hour journey.
When we reached the correct altitude the plane levelled out sharply causing the ‘wardrobe’ and its contents to topple forwards. Fortunately the rear seats stopped it from falling on the passengers and the chickens survived too.
The rest of the journey was uneventful and we arrived safely at our destination, the Riviera of the Black Sea, Sochi. It was cold and raining but the warmth of our welcome party made up for everything. A couple of minibuses soon whisked us along the coast road to the town of Sochi. We were all booked into single rooms on the fourth floor at the Hotel Moskva.
The rooms looked like those in Moscow, very basic, but the bathroom was much worse. There was a sink, a toilet, a shower, and a cockroach running across the floor. The drain for the shower was just a hole in the floor. This hole served to allow everything emptied from the sink, which had no plug, to overflow onto the bathroom floor. But at least the toilet flushed, but constantly!
Managing to get washed after a fashion, I dressed in my best clothes for our formal welcome dinner. The meal consisted of two courses, firstly, raw fish from Georgia which is a local delicacy. Unfortunately I don’t eat fish, as it brings me out in a rash, so I waited for the main course of Chicken Kiev. There were lots of toasts and speeches in Russian which were translated for us. After dinner we met our hosts, the Headteachers from the schools we had been partnered with. My host was Natalya who spoke no English. As Head of a kindergarten, she is responsible for 270 pupils aged 2 to 10. We got on very well from the start and soon found out a lot about each other and our families. The evening was a great success and we went back to the hotel feeling very positive.
I decided to skip the shower and went to bed fully covered and with a light on to keep the cockroaches at bay.
I slept quite well and woke to find that Sochi’s famous ‘Mediterranean’ climate had turned quite cold and it looked like rain. Unfortunately, at our briefing back in Gloucestershire, we had been told it would be quite sub-tropical, so we only brought light summer clothes! Feeling a bit despondent I went down to breakfast to find everyone else shivering too. The raw fish was having another outing so I skipped breakfast altogether as did my friend Liz, a vegetarian.
Things looked up when we were picked up by minibuses and taken to the Education offices. Here we met the Chief Education Officer and his Assistant CEO, Irina. There were also some Education advisors and all of the Headteachers from our partner schools. There were interesting and informative talks for 4 hours and we learned a great deal at this meeting about the education philosophy and practice in Sochi. We returned to our hotel for lunch which was very lavish, and very familiar, consisting of fish soup, raw fish, and Chicken Kiev, after which we went for a guided tour of Sochi.
This was wonderful as we got to see the sea (complete with lighthouse and huge model dinosaurs), the parks, the gardens, the street market, and the Outdoor Education Centre. This facility was most impressive. We were shown slide shows and video of field study trips undertaken by children as young as 10. They travel enormous distances to go hiking, mountain climbing, orienteering, and white-water rafting. It all looked very exciting but hair-raisingly dangerous.