Body Language


This blog entry about the events of Monday, August 02, 2004 was originally posted on August 10, 2004.

DAY 289:  In the 19th century, America was on a conquest to expand its territory.  Geographically, that meant head out to the old west, back in a time when it was the new west. 

Meanwhile in Russia, a similar phenomenon was going on.  While most European countries were scrambling for territories in Africa, Russia expanded east, consolidating its far east posts into a greater nation. 

Both America and Russia linked their outer territories the same way:  by laying down the tracks and constructing grand railways.

IN 1891, TSAR ALEXANDER II DECREED the creation of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would bring European Russians all the way to the Pacific.  Between 1891 and 1916, the tracks were laid, but in 1900, even before completion of the railway, Russia showed off its big trans-continental train route — the longest train route in the world — to the world at the Paris Exhibition, promising travelers a way to the Pacific in a fast, luxurious style — sort of like the Titanic on iron wheels.  Like the Titanic, the railway failed to live up to its hype — there were many delays and even dining car food shortages — although there were no big incidents of mass deaths or a passenger to later be played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Nowadays the railway still exists, more of as a means for Russian citizens to get from city to city, or for non-Russian travelers holding Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook to go on the train ride of a lifetime from Europe to the Far East or vice versa.  I expected the train ride to be a sort of international party on wheels filled with lots of chess and vodka, but to my chagrin, I was the only foreigner on the train — and I knew very little Russian at all.

I’VE HEARD THAT 80% OF COMMUNICATION is visual; you can pretty much tell what someone is trying to say with the context of the situation, hand gestures, facial expressions and other types of body language.  For example, if a guy is holding his crotch, jumping up and down or doing a little dance with a look of pain and distress in his face, it’s safe to say he’s saying, “Goddamn, I have to piss like a race horse!”  Then again, he could also be trying to tell you, “Fuck, that old gray-haired woman just kicked me in the nuts!” (in a falsetto voice of course).

Body language came in handy when I climbed aboard the No. 118 train (picture above) at Moscow’s Kazansky Station, going from Moscow to Novosibirsk with stops in cities along the way.  My first leg on the Trans-Siberian Railway would take me about a quarter of the way to the city of Yekaterinburg on a 30-hour ride across two time zones.  The standard accommodation for second-class coast was a four-person compartment with four beds in two bunks on each side.  My three compartment mates were a family of three, a mother, father and daughter of about nine or ten years of age — and none of them spoke English.  Whenever they or the conductor would ask me anything, I’d just stammer, say, “Umm…” and smile.  I figured that answering in English would be a waste of time, the way it would be for a Russian-only-speaking person to speak Russian on an Amtrak train.  I could tell by the look of the Russian mother’s face that she was saying, “Oh goodness, another damn tourist that can’t speak our language…”

I did my best with body language and context, figuring out the customary train procedures by following example, from renting sheets, rolling out the mattresses to making the bed.

After the Russian father and I helped each other out with the linens, the family kept to themselves most of the time eating or sleeping for the first several hours.  I didn’t say much because I wanted to catch up on writing.  I tended to my notebook as the train cruised by industrial areas and old train yards to the countryside of rivers and little villages

I REALLY SHOULD HAVE DONE MY HOMEWORK about life on the trains, because I would have known to bring more food — I was the only one that didn’t bring any.  Everyone but me was “brown bagging” it — and I put that in quotes because these “brown bags” had whole rotisserie chickens, vegetables, loaves of bread, tea bangs, drinks and the Trans-Siberian staple, dried lupsha (more commonly known to Americans as ramen noodles) since hot potable water was available in every car. 

With only a bottle of drinking water on me, I went over to the relatively fancy dining car, hoping to meet fellow English-speaking travelers in the same predicament as me — but it was just me one-on-one with the Cyrillic alphabetic menu.

“[Something, something],” the humorless waitress said to me in Russian.

“Umm…”  Smile.

“[Something or something],” she said, pointing to two items on the first page of the menu.  I replied by pointing to the top one. 

“[Something?]” she said in indecipherable Russian.

“Um… da.”  (“Umm… yes.”)

“[Something something something something something,]” she said in fast verbal Russian, so fast I didn’t put any commas in there.  “[Something?]”

“Um… da.”  I pointed to the item again.

“[Something, something?]” she asked.

“Um… ”  Smile.  I looked through my Barron’s Russian At A Glance pocket phrase book and she had a look to see if it could help her.

“[Something something, something,]” she said with two hand gestures, one like a plate and one like a bowl.

“Oh, no, no… I mean, nyet.  Umm… ”  Smile, while making the plate gesture.

“[Something something?]” she asked.  I figured she was asking if I wanted a drink with that, so I turned the page like I knew what she was talking about — only to stare at another indecipherable page.

“Um… “

“[Something something,]” she said.  In there I heard the words “pilva” (beer) and “Kola” (cola).  “Kola?”

“No, I mean, nyet.  Pilva.”

In two minutes I had a beer and a plate of a dried shredded fish snack that I had no idea I ordered.  It was okay, but I thought I ordered a substantial plate of food too.  The waitress came back with the menu.

“[Something something,]” she said, pointing to the C, Y, upside-down rectangular U part of the menu.  Like a beginner on Hooked On Phonics, I sounded out the word.  S… oo… p…  S… oop… Soop.  Oh!  SOUP!  I am the smartest man alive!

I pointed and sounded out lupsha, chicken noodle soup from my phrasebook.

“Nyet lupsha,” she said with a facial expression that said it wasn’t available.  “[Something] borscht.”

“Oh, borscht is fine.  I mean, da.”

“Da.  [Something] minyut,” she said with five fingers up.  Okay, in five minutes then.

In ten minutes I had a nice bowl of borscht and a plate of about six dinner rolls.  I started eating it until the waitress brought over a thing of sour cream from the fridge, reminding me that borscht had sour cream in it.  With all the bread the meal was quite filling — and it better have been at the price of 400 roubles, about $13 USD, the price I paid for a three course meal at a restaurant in Moscow with Sam.  It was no wonder everyone else brought their own food — the only other people dining car but me were train staff and a dolled up Russian blonde sitting with two Russian guys.

THE NO. 118 TRAIN CONTINUED TO CHUG ALONG EASTBOUND, passing through little villages, stopping at their stations along the way.  The sun started to set as some passengers stared out the window and I sat on the top bunk by the door and started to write some more.  Suddenly there was a figure in the doorway — and by figure, I mean the curvaceous one of that tall, dolled up Russian blonde I noticed in the dining car.  She was wearing high heels (like most Russian woman did), a long, tight black skirt and a translucent but respectable-looking sheer white blouse that showed off her sexy black bra underneath.  I couldn’t tell if she was going for that hot train staff secretary look or that of a hot, high class Trans-Siberian hooker — either way I was a sucker for black bras.  She approached me, ignoring everyone else in the cabin and said, “[Something something]” in Russian.

“Um… ”  Smile.  I pulled out my Russian phrasebook and she took it to find a phrase that would help her.  I thought she would flip to the section on “Train Service” but she read and sounded out phonetically a phrase from the “Socializing” section.

“Are… you… free… this… evening?” she said, unsure of herself with a girlish giggle that made her about ten times hotter.

Am I free this evening? I thought.  Really, is she serious?  C’mon, I’m not exactly Brad Pitt here.  Wait, stop staring down her shirt before she notices!

The conversation at the doorway woke up the half asleep Russian mother laying in the bottom bunk across the way.  Russian Mom was diagonally facing from me, out of sight of the Russian blonde with the voluptuous body language, whose back was to her reading the phrasebook at my elevated bedside.

“Are… you… married?” asked the Beautiful Blonde Bombshell with the Body in the Black Bra.

“Uh… nyet.”

The Russian mother saw what was going on there and flagged my eyes towards her with her concerned facial expression and index finger waving side to side.

“Would… you… like… a… drink?”

“Um… ”  Suddenly I saw the Russian mother was shaking her head No, with her finger violently swaying.  Through body language, she was trying to tell me it was some sort of a scam or set-up.  ”...nyet.”

“[Something something,]” the Blonde said.

“Umm… nyet.”


“Umm… nyet.”

“Cola?  Mineral water?”

“Umm… ” — Damn, black bras are sexy”...nyet.”  Sigh.

She left after that, going onto the next car opposite of the way she came.  The Russian mother gave me a smug smile and a thumbs up.  I gave her the thumbs up back and she fell back asleep.  Later on, I noticed the Beautiful Blonde Bombshell with the Body in the Black Bra going back towards the dining car with those two shady-looking Russian guys I noticed with her before.

WHAT I DID GET OUT OF THE FAUX FLIRTATION with the Russian Blonde was the icebreaker for me and the Russian family in my compartment.  They offered me food and conversation, most of which was still with hand gestures and pointing.  For example, “Where are you going?” in non-verbal was to point at me and then to a map in my guidebook.


To ask me if they could turn off the room light to sleep, the Russian father put his hands together to make a “pillow” and leaned his head into it.


The next morning, the Russian father told me what time I’d arrive in my destination by pointing at me and then “8” on his watch.  The Russian family of three disembarked the train way before that time, but bid me farewell before stepping off.

“Goodbye,” the Russian mother said with one of the few English phrases she knew.

“Da svidaniya,” I reciprocated, reading from my phrasebook.  It was totally unnecessary though; after all that we had been through, we could have just waved to each other.

Next entry: Crashing in Yekaterinburg

Previous entry: A Room For The Night

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Body Language”

  • Russian mothers ROCK… glad she stopped you from a potentially hazardous situation. smile

    FIRST - I think.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  07:46 AM

  • hmmm ... lets see the tally .. ruskie MOM 1 ...  once in a lifetime membership into the mile lonnng club (HOt Blonde) 0, don’t blame you though those other guys seems suspect

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  04:42 PM

  • How sweet of her to look out for you!  If she wasn’t there, do you think you would have succumbed to the black bra?  haha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  05:00 PM

  • you should’ve just ask the blonde chick if she wanted to play tennis….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  05:09 PM

  • that was a close one. good thing that nice russian mom was looking out for you. the blonde was probably gonna lead you to an empty room, and you’ll end up waking up with a huge bump on your head and all your stuff gone. just like in all those train movies. =P

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  05:38 PM

  • Erik - I laughed so hard about the soup thing.  When I first got to Japan, I was ecstatic when I could decipher out soup and the like.  Sure it took 5 minutes, but at least I knew I wasn’t ordering squid intestines or something wink

    Posted by Liz  on  08/10  at  05:44 PM

  • What a nice little Russian family!  I love it when strangers look out for you like that.  Beware the power of the black bra - ha!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  07:33 PM

  • Step away from the Blonde in the Black Bra…..

    Good for you the big head was able to interpret mom’s bodylanguage, before the little head marched you into trouble. (Little here is not derogatory, just a comparison.)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/10  at  09:04 PM

  • LoL MarkyT!

    Nice going Erik! You are the better man…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/11  at  07:18 PM

  • RINA:  I can never underestimate the power of the Black Bra…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/13  at  05:25 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Crashing in Yekaterinburg

Previous entry:
A Room For The Night


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