2004-05 Outbound to Russia
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
Sponsor: San Jose Rotary Club
Host: Yakutsk Rotary Club, District 5010, Russia
October 2 Journal
I'm in Yakutsk now. So far Russia is incredible. My host family has a dacha, which is like a summer house, and they have a green house there so we spent a day picking tomatoes and peppers. Also, there is no plumbing in the dacha, so of course they have a spectacular outhouse. I think there must be some rule about having wide holes in the outhouse because it is enormous. It could easily swallow me whole.
I also spent two days in Vladivostok because I had a layover. It's a much more interesting city than Jacksonville. But the mood was somber because of the separatists that seized the school. During the long plane flight I finished reading a book called The Unquiet Ghost by Adam Hochschild. It's about the era of Stalin. One of the more interesting points that the book makes is that people miss Stalin, of which I was unaware. But, from what I've found out it is true that many people, generally older, miss Stalin because he "kept order" and "won the war." The younger generations though do not miss Stalin.
So far, my most western experience was a trip to the Yakutsk bowling alley. I was really surprised to see that this bustling city of 200,000 people was home to a two story bowling alley. The bottom story is for regular bowling and the top story is for cosmic bowling. When I got my bowling shoes I think I was a size 44. But, the best part about the bowling was the food. There was a large ornate menu of gourmet food. I had tomatoes stuffed with different spices and fish. My friends had ice cream and a couple of them ordered beer form the full bar that was loaded with many different kinds of liquor. I was extremely surprised that a waiter came to our lane to take our order. After bowling the five us went to the billiard room and played pool for an hour. There was a table next us where two couples were playing, but I think they didn’t know the rules since they weren’t even using the white ball. And my friends agreed.
I’ve been a visitor at three different English classes now and they generally ask the same questions, “How do you like Yakutsk?”, “What do you think of Putin?”, “What do you think of the war?”, “Do you like Russian girls?” That last one really was a question.
It has just started snowing here but the weather isn’t too cold. I am enjoying it so far. Although the walk to school is difficult on ice. One experience I had while walking home was quite interesting as I always pass a little cafe just before Lenin Square. It is sort of upscale and there are always many people sitting outside chewing bread and sipping tea or beer. Lately though there have been fewer people as the temperatures are getting close to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. But as I was walking past this day I was surprised to see a larger crowd than usual. I was even more surprised to see that there was a group of people dancing where they had pushed some tables aside to clear room for a dance floor. Then, I heard a familiar eighties beat faintly in the background and then "can't touch this." I had to at least pause a few moments to take in this scene of Russians dancing to MC Hammer. Russia has indeed held a few surprises with musical taste. I was at a Rotary meeting with about eight older people and we were eating dinner and they were discussing some business in Russian, thus I was completely oblivious. But, I certainly recognized the sounds of "this will be the day that I die. This will be the day that I die. Bye bye Miss American pie..." The song was completely wrong for the occasion but did make it all pretty amusing.
I’m getting used to the language. It is much harder than English and everyone I’ve met agrees with me. But there is still a lot of pointing and gesturing to get some points across. I’m not even sure that I can describe the food. It is all delicious. There are many kinds of soups and breads and a ton of tea, which Russia is of course known for having. In addition to this there is a plentiful amount of fruit, and one of the best dishes I’ve had is Russian pizza. It’s beyond me to describe it, except that I could eat it constantly. I was also happy to see that my family grows their own spices at their Dacha. Even their dog, a German Shepard, stops and munches on the peppermint leaves.
I have one pretty strange story that I’ve yet to comprehend. I flew from America to Korea and then to Vladivostok where I had a layover for two days. I suppose there aren’t many flights to Yakutsk. So, for these two days I stayed in a flat with a short, stout woman named Zina, pronounced like Xena, the Warrior Princess. She was a newly retired school teacher and helped me a lot with my Russian. The entire time I stayed with her she was very hospitable and always cooked large, scrumptious meals. I was never able to finish any one meal in its entirety. And, my opinion of Zina is still of a high standard but this story is just strange.
I had stayed my two nights and it was finally time for me to take my last flight to Yakutsk. I packed my bags and was standing at the door when ZIna came behind me and began turning various knobs on different locks. Zina’s door had quite an intricate pattern of locks that I couldn’t begin to understand and so I let her at her work. For some reason when she tried to push the door open it refused and stood its ground. She went back to turning knobs but to no avail. Then, what I thought was a rather quick decision, she left and returned with a hammer and two pieces of flat metal.
She picked one of the bolted locks and began pounding away with all the force her small stature could manage. I was astounded. I didn’t know what to do. My means of communication were still not well off and I didn’t know how to offer to help, and besides that I didn’t want to be responsible for breaking anything. Then she left again after the hammer failed and returned with a metal pipe. She took one of the wedges of steel and put it in the crevice of the door and started hammering away. This didn’t work either.
By this time the people who were supposed to take me to the airport had arrived and were standing outside of the door. I have no idea what they must have thought was happening inside. Zina turned and handed me the tools and left. So, I went to work with the door. I started to think that I really might not get out, since we were on the tenth floor there was no window option. After ten to fifteen minutes of our abusing the door it certainly had the look as if someone were trying to break out from the inside as it was chipped and indented with imprints from the hammer. Then, Zina pulled out a key and messed with a couple of locks and the door opened.
I still am not sure if all of our pounding had anything to do with it or if she simply neglected to unlock one of the many bolts. Either way, I was finally out.
November 6 Journal
Last month I and a few other university students saw Romeo and Juliet in this regions native Yakutian language. Unfortunately that didn't make it much more exciting. But the directors "interpretation" of the play provided some variation as there was a lot of skating, pop music, and a fumigation scene in which a character used a fog machine as a pesticide. When the play ended the audience applauded in rhythm. I think it is sad that this Siberian town of 200,000 people has six theatres and more culture than Jacksonville.
After the play ended our group of five went to a nearby café. We were constantly being watched since we also represented five different countries. After all, one foreigner in Yakutsk is unreal enough but five means we must have been banished here. We ate wraps of beef and drank juice. Then we saw a big group of Russians getting drunk and one of them yelled that if you don't look everyone in the eye when you toast then you have seven years of bad sex. I'm not yet sure if this is a Russian axiom or not. Before we left I played air hockey against a Polish student. The handles or paddles, however they're termed, were made of wood and about five times the size of our puny plastic American ones. It really was a barbaric game of air-hockey but I was victorious.
Let me tell you about a day that was by far the most disgusting day I've had in Yakutsk. I was taken from my home by a group of three Russians that will be my next host family to visit their friends' Dacha. When we were there the father made me do a lot of pointless chores so he could take my picture in different poses. Then, the ultimate chore came. In the shed there were six sides of horse sealed in plastic bags. They carried out the meat and started axing away at the bones to release the meat. Then the father wanted me to take a few swings for a good picture. But the ax was futile so they brought out a chainsaw and finished the job that way. There wasn't any blood though because it was all frozen. The friend did eat some of the horse meat raw which is apparently a normal eating habit to prevent tuberculosis. Then the father gave me a bag with chucks of horse as a present.
I'm afraid I might have to shave my moustache because when I'm outside my hot breath causes water to condense and freeze on the hair.
It was last Friday when I began my usual walk to school down the bustling street of Prospect Lenin. As always I was inhaling a lot of disgusting car fumes and most Russians were pulling their loads by sled, including children. I rounded one of the last corners of my mile long route and was creaking along a narrow path of wooden boards covered in ice. When I reached the end and was able to see my school I noticed a rather large gathering of police and many people running into the school or into their cars. I felt a little apprehensive because of the Bislan massacre earlier this year; although I was fairly sure no terrorists would invade Siberia.
This left me to wonder what caused this state of trepidation. I continued forward since I didn't want anyone else to think of my character as pusillanimous. However, the closer I got I realized that my decision wasn't very prudent. One of the many cop cars quickly shifted positions and I saw a gigantic bear that had wandered out of the taiga and into the city sometime during the night. Unfortunately, I missed the really exciting part as they had already shot a sedative into the massive creature and he was nothing more than a languid mass. He really didn't look too aggressive. I was later told that this was a very rare occurrence and that I shouldn't be too worried about it. As far as I was concerned it was the most exciting day I've had in Yakutsk.
I finally made it to the Russian cinema where I saw "The Chronicles of Riddick". I swear, in Russian it is a life changing movie. The audience was practically crying. Before the movie started though my Russian friends and I had three hours because the movie we were supposed to see sold out since this cinema only has two screens. So, we went to the Yakutsk "fast food" restaurant. It's actually more of a small café that serves salads and dough wraps filled with meat and cheese and of course ice-cream. It's amazing that people still buy ice-cream from the street vendors even when it's snowing outside. The food wasn't great, though it was superior to American fast food. Someone should ridicule Calder for feasting at McDonalds while in Russia. There is too much delicious food for such behavior. Eventually we made it back to the theater which, inside, isn't any different from American theaters.
During one of my visits to an English class I met a short, somewhat eccentric teacher who has taken it upon herself to arrange classes for me aside from the ones I have already. So, I had my first "extra" class a few days ago with some sort of scientist who has dedicated his entire professional career to the different kinds of mosses. And that does mean the gray stuff in the trees. He had at least one thousand samples of mosses from all over the world. He laid a few sheets of wax paper in front of me which had these samples and he explained that moss grows out of the fecal matter of animals. That's when I realized that each sample also had attached feces. That was just awkward. But then we went to the institute's greenhouse. It was humid and tropical and I could hardly breathe from the humidity. Just like Florida.
Another touching story is the traditional Russian dinner I had last night.
My “mama” and I had been preparing for the event by arranging and re-arranging tables and chairs to accommodate the nine guests plus the three members of our family. There wasn’t any food preparation though because the dinner was being catered by a local restaurant. All of the guests arrived on time except for two that arrived over an hour late. In Yakutsk though you don’t dine without all of the guests. So, this left time for a lot of discussion amongst the punctual guests and I was involuntarily brought into two a few discussions which I prefer to be left out of because my Russian is still not good.
After all the guests arrived, we sat down at the table where many plates of food were awaiting us. One dish was a salad comprised of corn, Russian mayonnaise, chicken, onion, some green spices, grapes, and pickles on the bottom. I know it sounds disgusting but it was delicious. There was also a plate of grilled meat which I think was beef but I’m not positive as horse and elk are also common delicacies. However, the only absolutely disgusting portion of food was the plate of cow tongue, stomach, and blood. Well, I know the tongue was from a cow but my mama wasn’t sure about the stomach and blood. The stomach looks like small rings of white flesh with some yellow matter in the middle and the blood was just like small round pieces of pudding, like blood pudding. I did try one of everything and now I know three things I’ll never eat again.
Also, on the table were a variety of drinks; wine, Baileys, Martini, and juice. I confined myself to the latter of the choices. This was a good decision since the reason for the celebration was the 25 year anniversary of my host parents. This meant that throughout dinner each guest would stand up and give a toast and everyone would take a shot of something or swallow a glass of wine. I would have been incoherent within the first half hour of dinner.
After each guest had given at least two toasts and everyone ceased to eat anymore we all stood up and started walking around the flat. I was relieved everyone would finally be leaving after the two hours of eating and talking.
I also noticed a lot of food still in the kitchen that hadn’t even been unwrapped yet. I assumed my mama was simply a safe person and kept it in case food ran low. Then, suddenly, everybody sat back down and somehow I felt ambushed. The food from the kitchen was brought out to the table for us to resume eating. It was a large plate of local fish which was cut into twenty squares and each piece had a slice of lemon on top covered in caviar.
The head of the fish remained on the plate with its eyes gouged out and replaced by two grapes. We ate the fish and at least three rounds of more toasts were made. My papa was continually filling glasses and brining out more wine and martini bottles.
This continued for another two hours before everyone rose again and walked around the apartment. Then we resettled at the table and more food followed. This time it was a plate of tiny pieces of local fish which was raw and frozen and covered in spices. It was a lot like sushi which I miss a lot. The toasts also continued and this time presents were given to my host parents. Since most of the conversation didn’t include me due to a lack of understanding the language I was left to just eating. During this last course there was a plate of vegetables brought out also but beneath the vegetables were small strips of fried potato. It was the closest food I’ve had to a French fry since arriving in Russia. I indulged myself in these Russian French fries for a couple hours until the procession of people finally got up and actually left the apartment.
More and more snow is piling up everyday. And today while walking to the university I saw a father pulling his infant child on a small sled type contraption behind him. I can't help but feel cheated.
April 29 Journal
The raw horse didn’t taste so strange anymore. It wasn’t much different than reaching into a bag of potato chips or popcorn, doubts only arose in me after seeing the occasional purple vein emerging from a chunk of the frozen meat. It had become difficult to contort my mouth in the proper chewing motions without feeling in my cheeks, my expressions were infantile as if I were retraining my muscle how to eat solid food again. My fingers were crooked and stiff in the wool gloves and it was impossible to untangle them as they had lost feeling long ago.
Looking out towards the field of snow I saw where dozens of boats had found themselves lodged for a long winter. There were small commuter boats, fishing vessels, and even a cruise ship. She was five stories high and had a blue hull which jutted out from the ice like a small whale. Icicles hung in rows from her iron mast and red railings, occasionally breaking off and shattering on the deck below. The windows etched in long rows in her sides reflected individual scenes of the white graveyard surrounding her, a sort of broken collage where I noticed pieces of myself and the dock in three different squares of glass, severed but somehow correct in context. It was as if she were gazing around trying to make sense of her crippled companions but had found herself just as useless, just as immobile. They were a flock captured in flight, stuck in motion, longing to continue homeward where they knew better land existed.
It wasn’t an uplifting site but in this small Siberian town it was one of the last victorious sites. Only in the cold slumber of Yakutsk, where man has struggled to live for centuries, can I find a triumph of the fading Mother Earth. One of her last havens is in the ice packs and glaciers of Siberia. Here she overcomes one of the most important achievements of man, a vessel that has long sailed across her seas and up her rivers, here she defeats progressive civilization and lauds herself by ripping open every gray cloud to spill itself and freeze on the land below. It is a last harsh breath before a final collapse.
If this had been my first time viewing the frozen land I would have wondered how all of these once free boats had found themselves in this short stretch of tundra. Is it possible that all of these captains became disoriented and lost their way, or maybe all of those empty vodka bottles near the helms of the ships tell the stories. It is Russia, after all. Of course, none of these theories would be plausible given the lack of water and impossibility of passage into this white desert. After all speculation is concluded, my best answer would be that they fell from above. There was a bizarre Siberian tornado and it picked up this group of sailing ships and dropped them all right here.
This encounter, however, was not my first. I had made the short journey to this spot seven months ago to the day. When I wore only sneakers, one layer of clothing, sunrays warmed me and I actually sweated. It was my first viewing of Yakutia’s port where boats floated in the deep river and they were tied to thick steel pilings. A naval ship also arrived that day with its crew of bulky Russian sailors and their crisp white uniforms. They dispersed in small white groups to explore the port while a few sailors were left behind to stow away the large barrels of artillery near the ships guns.
On that day I walked close to the water passing by a small shop where two sailors were buying beer and onto the narrow pier. The black wobbling pupils of the white birds stared at me as I neared the final planks. I dipped my hands into the dark river and rinsed my face. A pike rose to the surface and I glimpsed its whiskers and jagged teeth before it quickly retreated downwards and again I rinsed myself with the cool water. Some of the decorated sailors began clambering onto the pier behind me, almost shaking me into the water. They spoke about victories from past training missions and how other ships quickly succumbed to their might. Each one spoke in turn giving his account of how the events occurred and each raised his voice when it came to the part of the story where he himself had made the final decision which led to the victory. So, in the end each sailor had assumed himself responsible for the solitary triumph and drank to his own valor.
Each sailor also had his own tale of winter in Siberia, of entire crews of men that had become trapped in fields of ice and perished together. Or, of sailors watching their crewmates die beneath the icy surface trying to break through to the other side. They all knew of Captain Vlad, he was a small legend among the sailors in this cold region of Russia. Captain Vlad had found himself trapped on a small tug boat with only enough provisions to last a couple of weeks. After two months his lost ship was seen by a helicopter and when a rescue team arrived they found Captain Vlad missing an arm from his elbow down and both of his legs from the knees down. He had eaten them to stay alive. Listening intently to their embellished narratives I learned that they were only staying one night before heading to more open water the next day in order to avoid the oncoming winter.
Remembering that September day when I trekked to the port and wiped sweat from my forehead, brought back a forgotten detail of the universe. In Yakutsk, something known only subconsciously and not acknowledged in the winter, like a child who wanders through the first years of life attaching itself to whatever may come, oblivious to the center of its being, what actually materializes existence, a center that usually goes unnoticed until it has disappeared beyond a horizon from which it can’t be retrieved or remembered as it really was. It is one of those memories where the feeling can be recalled but actual events and facts are misplaced, shuffled, and there is no recognition of what once existed, only a small feeling lingering inside. During these winter months, that is how I recalled the center, the sun, the star holding a universe together, it had become imperceptible. I may as well have declared that the world is round while staring at the ground below.
Halfway through the bag of raw horse I thought of the “Pole of Cold,” the coldest spot on Earth. It was a twenty hour drive from Yakutsk on an icy road which exists only in winter. It is called the “road built on bones” because it was constructed by prisoners from the gulags once lodged into this area of lifeless earth. Thousands died in the process. The roads final destination is a site known as Kolima. During the era of Stalin this name carried with it a sharp feeling of barren emptiness, hopelessness; much like the terrain surrounding the small camp, an endless tundra. It was the prison without bars. This is where the “enemy combatants” were sent and where they were certain to be buried.
I rode there with my Russian mother, two Germans, their translator and a boy who lived there and spoke French. The Germans were Hanz and Christian. My final destination was the small wooden village of Tom-Tor. It was a town of two thousand people who had found themselves in the valley of a mountain range. It seemed that God had accidentally spilled a few people from his carafe when he was populating the Earth and so their fate was to dwell here, where the temperature had once reached negative ninety degrees and in the winter it is routinely around negative 75 degrees. During the twenty hour drive my two German friends and I, who had also come to see the festival, concluded that this town of natives would probably be a disgruntled peoples. What other mood could possibly exist in such a place?
So, it was relieving when my Russian mother and I met our temporary family and a spread of food was already waiting on the table. A plate of cow stomach, finely chopped pieces of frozen horse, beet soup, salad, and small elk steaks. The family consisted of a mother, father, daughter, son, grandma and grandpa. The daughter was fourteen and the son almost two. I liked the grandma the most. In Yakutsk grandmothers are strong entities. They always have final authority and their judgments can be equally as harsh as light. The Yakut grandmother always has a wealth of fine wrinkles folding around the edges of her tan face. Despite the age of her fingers and bones she is relentless in her duties of the house and she is an authentic chef with her native dishes. But, she is not so different from the grandmothers of the world. All she lives for is to see the growth of her family and what she has helped to create. At night, after dinner, she sits at the table drinking her tea waiting for company. It is this bit of human contact that propels her through these final, lingering years of life. After living in the village she is amazed by the site of an American boy from Florida.
My mother and I started our tour the next day by driving to the nearby town of Oymikon. On the way we saw a restored home of a famous Polish man that once lived between these villages. He was evicted to the region and quickly adapted by learning to speak Yakutian and was the first to write down the Yakut alphabet. His one room home was made of sticks and mud. In the center there was an oven which constantly burned for heat and emitted smoke through the ceiling. Etched into the sides of the enclosure were flat pieces of wood; these were beds. I laid on the plank of wood and stared into the dark ceiling where smoke crawled. My head landed in the crack of two uneven pieces of wood, I turned sideways but my gut hung over the edge and my shoulder pressed shoulder into the wood. I turned onto my stomach and pushed my nose through the crack where my head had been. The fingers on my dangling arm turned numb and a headache formed at the front of my forehead where it rested against the wood. Turning myself over a few more times, allowing my gut to hang and fingers to lose consciousness, I decided that I never wanted to be Polish or evicted to Siberia.
We continued on to Oymikon and passed by a small gathering of Yakut natives and other foreigners who had journeyed here to see the festival also. On display was a tee-pee, an authentic one. It was much different from the usual brown papery cartoon models. It stood eight feet high and was constructed from the skins of many animals. The fur side faced inwards while the bloody part of the animal faced outwards. A small opening crouched at the bottom of the tee-pee where little kids were crawling in and out. The Yakut were also serving stragonina, a local fish which is thinly sliced in long pieces and served raw. All of the foreigners were enjoying it along with the customary vodka always accompanying the dish.
About a mile later my mother and I arrived at the village of Oymikon. It was nothing more than a vast field sparsely populated with wooden houses and one school. We rode to the “pole of cold” memorial in the middle of the town. It was a giant iron thermometer with the record breaking temperature of -71.2 degrees Celsius engraved on its side, a working thermometer attached to its Frankenstein counterpart read –13 degrees C. My mom and I were taking pictures of the memorial when a jeep arrived and out came their German friends. We took group pictures and then headed to the house of a relative of the German’s translator.
We arrived at a small wooden house where a group of old Yakut men were chopping wood and drinking vodka. They dropped their axes and pried the bottles from their lips upon seeing the strange family of foreigners. They spoke among themselves in Rakutian, each word containing its own harsh, vulgar sound. My mother answered their curiosity by responding in Yakutian and their steel faces softened as they offered their vodka to the strangers and showed them inside.
We entered the house through the kitchen and then walked into the living room to wait for lunch and all had to stoop down in order to avoid the low ceiling. I noticed that in general everything was a little lower in this region of the Earth to better accommodate the “short peoples of the north,” as they are called. It was only a problem at night when I needed to take the short walk to the outhouse through the snow and couldn’t discern where the frame was and inevitably would hit my head if he I didn’t remember to duck. In this house I spotted a wind chime hanging from the ceiling where the kitchen and living room joined and asked why it was inside. I found that it was in accordance with Fung-Shui to create a more harmonious balance.
Within five minutes we returned to the kitchen where a small round table was filled with food. We gathered chairs and crowded around the table. The usual dishes were all present; raw horse, raw fish, a salad made of chopped beef and mayonnaise, intestines and a certain sausage filled with blood and milk. Patrick had tried it all at some point in the past and found that the raw horse and fish had unique tastes to which he had grown accustom but the intestines and sausage were still too foreign.
May 23 Journal
"Beating my nude host father with eucalyptus leaves."
So, how did I find myself standing over my nude host father beating him with a branch of eucalyptus leaves while he moaned out loud? It wasn’t on a dare or a practical joke and it wasn’t meant to be kinky. Also, the fact that I am in Russia doesn’t make it obligatory that vodka helped to motivate the situation.
It was after a game of basketball with my host father and a few of his former students that I decided to bathe myself. However, I live in the “dacha” for now, which is like a cabin, thus there is no bathtub or normal means of washing. I picked up a towel and started walking towards the lake that borders our yard. I wasn’t looking forward to the experience since it was frozen less than a month ago and hypothermia probably remains as a very real possibility. I was in my shorts and walking through the yard with my towel when my father stopped me and said that he had already started heating the “banya” and we could wash there.
What does it mean “to heat up” the banya? It should be understood that at the dacha we live a very primal life. Every day my father and I chop fire wood together to heat both of the ovens in our dacha and the oven in my aunt’s dacha. This is so that we stay warm at night and so we can cook dinner. We wash our dishes in giant tubs of water that are heated on top of these giant brick stoves, basically the only source of heat is the stove and that is only produced by our physical labor. The banya is no exception. It is basically a sauna but has features to set it apart and make it a purely Russian experience. It is also “oven powered,” a term which could frequently be used in Yakutsk, and my father had already chopped all of the wood and the banya had been heating for two hours.
I had heard a lot about the Russian banya earlier but had never gotten the full experience. My father and I entered the first room together as it is comprised of three separate rooms. In this first room the temperature is low as there is nothing to heat it. We entered the second room and I could see the back of the stove where my father had started the fire. The third room was only a door away and as I hesitated for a second, wondering what to do next, my father began undressing. I assumed we would strip down to our underwear and head to the next room together, but when we reached that pivotal moment I stopped and glanced over to see exactly how far he was going to escalate the situation. He was already naked and smiling. I decided to go all the way and we headed into the third room already sweating.
This room was also wooden with the front of the stove poking through the wall and a large barrel of cold water stood in the corner. The temperature must have been just over a hundred (Celsius) and my father said that we needed to sit on the bench at first to get used to the heat and relax a little. He began telling me about the history of the banya as our naked bodies sat together on the bench in this hundred degree room. Apparently it used to be a tradition to drink “kvas” while in the banya to better cleanse your pores.
Kvas is a non alcoholic Russian drink made from bread. Each bottle has the scent of a loaf of bread and the taste is something I can’t describe. He continued on about the banya by explaining that in the winter people wash themselves in this steaming hot sauna and then immediately run outside and dive into the snow and return back to thaw out. At this point dehydration was setting in and I was pondering the sanity of the average Russian.
We sat for ten minutes basting in our sweat before returning to the first room as a short escape from the heat. I stood in front of the door which was mostly glass and realized that anyone walking by at the moment would get a glimpse that would not soon be forgotten. Our bodies were smoking and the visible white perspiration rose from our bodies slowly latching onto the windows so that we couldn’t even see out. My father was still talking about the banya and had reached the time of the modern banya of Russia. He said that during the break away from the heat Russians often drink large glasses of beer to satisfy their dehydration and then run back into the sauna to drain it all out. I asked about a tradition which I first heard in the Pole of Cold, where people rub vodka on their chests while withering away in the banya. I was told it helps with cleansing the “dysha,” in English it is something like soul or spirit. So, in Russia it is possible to purify yourself physically and spiritually with vodka. This is a concept that probably doesn’t exist in many countries, however my father hadn’t heard of this practice; perhaps it is strictly a Pole of Cold tradition.
After spending a couple minutes cooling off we returned to endure more of the banya. Once inside with the door tightly shut my father leaned over and dipped a small pot into the barrel of cold water. He threw the water onto the hot rocks above the stove so that a rush of steam filled the tiny room and he motioned for me to follow him to the bench. With the steam the temperature easily reached a hundred and ten. We sat holding our heads trying to bear through the worst and after two minutes all was better. When I looked over, my father’s balding head was bright pink and his silver tooth glittered in his large smile.
It wasn’t long before we retreated to cool off again and then returned. Except, this time he grabbed a small branch of eucalyptus leaves which had been soaking in a bowl of hot water. He told me to lie on the bench face down. I slowly lowered my naked self onto this steaming bench, trying not to scald myself, obviously I was a bit worried. After I became somewhat settled he began to lightly beat my back with the branch and down to my feet, the hot water puddled on my body and I clenched my mouth to keep from screaming. At first it was a little painful but I quickly got used to it and it just became a strange feeling. My father started talking about banya facts again and said that in Russia there used to be a popular beer that people drank which was made from honey. It helped to cleanse and strengthen the skin, I didn’t really catch the entire explanation as I couldn’t hear so well through the whipping of the branch.
We switched positions and he laid himself down as I held the stick wondering exactly what to do. I didn’t have any practice at whipping people, S and M hadn’t been a ritual of mine in the past. I was scared of hurting him and so I began lightly brushing the leaves across his back. He told me to beat him harder, obviously he was more accustomed to this than I was. So, I increased my strength but it still didn’t satisfy him. He wasn’t happy until I put all of my muscle into every whip and I knew that I was finally doing it right when the moans started. I whipped the leaves up and down his body trying not to notice what was really going on but I couldn’t help but think that I was naked with another man in a sauna, and I was whipping him with eucalyptus leaves. We continued on for nearly ten minutes, whipping and moaning, until my arms were tired and he was content.
The last process in the Russian banya is the actual cleansing. There were two large bowls of water and soap. We splashed the mixture onto ourselves and then poured the remaining water onto our heads. My father washed with the eucalyptus water so that his pink head, silver tooth, and the green water mixed together to look like some unidentifiable melted candy. Then, the adventure came to end and I dressed myself to walk back to the dacha, but my father thought it was ok to walk back in only a t-shirt.
Maybe nobody saw, hopefully the neighbors were asleep.
June 25 Journal
I arrived today from my four day trip on the Omga River which lies in a small village about six hours from Yakutsk, two of those hours being by ferry. I went with my father and a ninth grade class of Yakutian students, their teacher and a few of their parents. After the long drive and giving a sacrifice to a designated tree for luck we came to the bank of the river and began setting up camp. My father brought out his bright pink tent from 1980 where three of us slept even thought it is made for one. It didn’t even have all of the necessary parts forcing my father to hunt in the forest with his ax for two long branches in order to keep it off the ground. Then we unrolled two long pieces of animal skin and laid them over the hole in the bottom of the tent and placed our sleeping bags on top. Instantly the mosquitoes appeared in swarms and ate us. I feel as if I have a right to complain about this after I was told about the torture that used to be implemented in Yakutsk. All over the world different civilizations invented perverted executions and various painful tortures but in Yakutsk and in the more northern parts it was always easy. They would simply take the convicted person, bind him to a tree in the middle of the Taiga, and strip him or her of all clothing; within a few hours death by mosquito would be complete. I wasn’t exactly naked and bound to a tree but that didn’t make a difference to the flies. To ward them off there is a different Yakutian tradition still in fervent practice today, cow feces. It isn’t as disgusting as it sounds and once you find yourself in the situation there isn’t anything you won’t try. We all built small fires in front of our tents and walked around the site collecting clumps of dried cow feces and used them to smother the fire so that the flame disappeared and only smoke was emitted. At the time I convinced myself that standing in the smoke of flaming cow feces was the only way out and really it didn’t seem so strange as it does now looking back on that moment.
After we had set up all the tents and built a few fires our small spot on the bank looked like a real campsite; It was the first time I had a chance to walk to the water. The river was settled inside of a group of hills where we were stopped for the night and at the crest of our site, just before descending downwards I saw a picturesque Yakutsk, how the river wound through the green landscape lined with fields of yellow and purple flowers, then it continued on edging around a distant village of wooden homes. I picked up a couple of rocks walking towards the water where two of the kids were fly fishing. When I walked up to them and skipped the rocks across the water they were dumbfounded by this talent, it isn’t such a popular pastime. I tried to teach them but it wasn’t working out and it was scaring the fish so we gave up. Soon afterwards I retreated back towards the fires to escape the flies.
That night we ate borscht, salad, drank tea and played different games until three in the morning. The next day we woke to a sunny day and ate more borscht for breakfast. After we began inflating the rafts we learned that one had exploded and so three of us were without a boat. Luckily, my father and I had brought along our own raft in order to carry extra weight along the river and so we rode in there. Unfortunately our boat wasn’t designed for long river trips with its long rounded ends and square flat bottom. We both paddled with all of our strength but by lunch we couldn’t go any farther and so we switched to a regular canoe and carried our own boat behind us with two people in it. This was easier but carrying a couple hundred pounds behind you on a river when you’ve only got paddles is tiring. The entire time on the river we were roasting under the sun and jumping in the water to escape the flies. My one happy moment was when my father found some wild green onion when we stopped on the bank, it was refreshing.
After six hours on the river we finally spotted our bus; it was following us at each stop since there was not enough man power to carry it all by canoe. A huge sigh of pure joy escaped all of us at the sight of the big, beautiful white bus. We paddled as hard as we could to reach the shore and end the day but of course we grew tired before hitting land and rested again and repeated that process a few more times. It was a quick night after we cleaned ourselves and had another meal of borscht and salad. We pitched our tents and burned fecal fires in front of them to get rid of the flies, hung our wet clothes on nearby trees and went to sleep.
The next day I was in dread until I found out that we weren’t going to carry the extra boat and once we got on the water we tied four boats together and made a sail out of a tarp. I was in deep doubt about how well this idea would come off but I was proven wrong when the strong wind picked up and blew us down river, we only paddled to steer. The day was also cloudy so we weren’t sweltering and in the middle of the river there weren’t any flies to eat us. It was pleasant. We sailed along for a couple hours before spotting the bus on a hill.
This was our last night on the river and so we celebrated by eating spaghetti and salad instead of borscht and salad. There was a traditional time of present giving and words from every parent and guest had to be given, including myself. After eating we explored the spot where we had stopped and climbed the small mountain to a house where a famous Russian writer once lived. We explored his preserved house and the three small cabins left there. The view was the best from this spot. Looking down on the river we saw an island that the river curved itself around on all sides and it kept going until nothing was visible. This is where we slept for our last night and the next day we left for the city.
I’ve still got a couple more adventures in Yakutsk within these last couple of weeks before returning to America. I am going to live at a camp for a little while and teach English and after that I’ll be going to an area not far from Yakutsk where the ice never melts and I’ll camp there with my dad and sister. I’ll be talking about all of this at the Welcome Home Dinner since this is probably my last journal. Just to prepare everyone for my entrance to America, I have gained a little weight. The diet here is heavily oriented with meat, much different from my vegetarian diet in America, causing me to put on about an extra forty pounds over the course of ten months. Also, due to the lack of Florida sun I have become white, a really puffed up snowball sort of. I’ll have to start thawing and exercising right when I return to be in shape for the dinner. Who thinks I can lose forty pounds in a week?