Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow is ultra-modern, convenient, and, as airports go, efficient. As anyone who has flown to Russia more than three or four years ago knows, it was not always so. The old Sheremetyevo was small and crowded. There was hardly any place to sit; you had to watch and wait for someone to leave a seat, which could take a long time. Nothing was designed for the comfort of the traveler. Layovers could last for ten or twelve hours. Oh, yes, the airport had one other serious drawback. But more of that later.
On January 1, 1998, Patricia and I set out on an air journey to Novosibirsk, Russia, for a ten-week adventure. At the time I was a parish pastor in South Dakota, but had been asked to teach for a quarter in a new Lutheran seminary. This was our first overseas trip. Back then the number of suitcases and the weight limit were higher than they are now, and we, not knowing any better, were packed to the max.
After two days and many sleepless hours, we arrived in Moscow at around 10:00 p.m. We knew how to say three or four Russian phrases and understood even fewer. Signs were written in Russian and sometimes English, but we could find nothing telling us where to go next. There we were with a ton of luggage, tired, not knowing where to turn. We stopped a passenger who looked as though he might be European and asked him, “Do you know where we should go?” He wasn’t sure, but thought we should go to the second floor. With all that luggage? Not without some assurances. One of us watched the suitcases while the other scouted around upstairs. Nothing promising. Those who arranged for our trip had failed to give us one vital piece of information, and we hadn’t known enough to ask.
That information came from another source. Patricia found a help desk where someone spoke English. This man informed us that we were at Sheremetyevo Terminal 2, but to fly to Novosibirsk we needed to be at Terminal 1. “How do we get there?” we asked, hoping that maybe it was a short walk. Without explaining, he summoned a van and said that the driver would take us there. Other passengers looked as though they were going to get into the van, but our helper stopped them. It was just us and our heavy baggage.
The relief we felt at knowing where we were going was short-lived. It was dark and we couldn’t see much, but we were driving away from the lights. It appeared as though we were on a deserted country road. The same thought came to both of us: They’ve put us all alone in this van because they plan to rob and kill us! Patricia said to the driver, “Do you speak English?” No answer. The lights were getting sparser, until it seemed we were completely away from civilization. We silently prayed, “Lord, have you brought us here just to die? If this is your will …” It wasn’t death that was daunting; it was the dying. Eternal life, yes, but we also knew that first it was going to hurt a bit.
After what seemed an interminable length of time, we began to drive toward lights. Soon we saw the sign in Cyrillic letters: “Sheremetyevo 1.” The driver silently and unsmilingly unloaded our bags, and there we were. Terminal 1, so far removed from Terminal 2, was even smaller and less convenient. We didn’t understand the flight registration procedures, and there was no one there who could explain anything to us. Somewhere along the way some mischievous sprite had pumped our suitcases full of even more lead. But none of that mattered too much just then. We were thankful to be alive.
That was the first of many such trips. My ten-week stint of teaching turned into a permanent call. Over the years, I managed to piece together what happened with us that dark night. You could get from one terminal to the other by taxi, by van, or by bus. This little trip could be very expensive by taxi, the main option if you don’t know Russian. Some airlines had their own free vans for their customers. Apparently, our airline was one of those, which is why we had the van to ourselves. The road between the two terminals really is quite desolate, especially at night. It all seems commonplace now, but having none of this knowledge back then, we had only our worst fears to rush into the vacuum.
There’s a conclusion to be drawn from this story, something along the lines that sometimes when it looks as though the Lord has deserted you, it turns out he had you most securely in his care. For my part, I think it’s wholesome to look death in the face once in a while. Still, I hope nothing like this happens again. While I did master the old system of shuttling between terminals, I’m really glad for the new Sheremetyevo.