Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Is It That Time Already?

With the middle of the week already upon us, it is bitter sweet to think that my time in Vladivostok is already coming to a close. I am beginning to feel nostalgic about even the smallest things, looking out my dorm room window and seeing the surrounding hills dusted with snow.

Today the high only reached about 0 F. You can step outside here and instantly begin to feel the snot in your nose freeze. My glasses are constantly fogging up as I breathe into my scarf, which quickly has a thin layer of ice on it. I keep laughing at myself knowing that I still have no idea what the future Siberian -58 F will feel like. With the coldest winter that Russia has seen in a while, I don't know if I could have planned taking the Trans-Siber at a better time.

But perhaps the most terrifying thing that I have come to fully realize is that I will not make it out of Russia before конец света (literally translated as the end of the light, which is also known as doomsday). I am some what allerted by the fact that some people are rushing to the store to stock up on food for the enevitable end, while I will soon be going to the store to get only a weeks worth of 'food' for a train trip. Will I even know that the lights have been turned out? 
Putin is apparently going to give a 'state of the motherland' address on Thursday (the day before the world ends). Perhaps he'll have some calming words for us all...
If not, however, I am just going to take this oppertunity now to let my family and friends know that I love and appreciate them. Moreover, I would like to also thank Russia for showing me a glimps of a very different world. I may curse at your icy sidewalks, unevenly built stairs, and outward opening doors, but I will surely miss your disorganized ways, your women drowning in fur, and your love for the Ghostbuster's theme song. 

I hope to never be one to make sweeping generalizations about Russia after only such a short time here, but I can say that Russia has taught me more than any other place I have ever visited. Perhaps it's something about the constant stress of not knowing what's happening, or the cold wind that rips through even the heavest coat, or maybe it's the countless nights spent trying to fall asleep on a weakly padded piece of wood. Whatever it is, I am sad to bid Russia farwell. 

With a Merry Chirstmas from my cabin on the train and a Happy New Year from Red Square

P.S. Sorry for all the spelling mistakes...while my Russian has slowly gotten better, I think my English is at an all time low. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How's The View?

It was dark as we drove north across one of the many bridges out of Vladivostok. We both still had on our jackets, and the gauge on the Prius display board showed the outside temperature slowly dropping as we continued on. By the time we would get to Arsenyev, it would about -20C (-4F)

Along the way we talked about funny things that had happened to us that week, me in broken Russian, him in broken English. We talked much about crazy Russian drives that we met along the way, and when my lacking language skills were no longer doing the trick of keeping him awake, he called his mom and talked to her for a while on speaker phone. 

Around 11 we were finally standing in the living room of his father's house. We discussed having some tea, but decided it would be better to just get some sleep, since we had to get up early the next morning. But for what? Apparently my friend was going to bribe these guys at an flight center to let us pilot an old Russian war plane. And if not, we were at least going to get a ride in it. Needless to say, I went to bed excited for the next day. 

Before I knew it, his alarm was going off and I was being told to get up and get dressed. And by get dressed, I mean super dressed. I had tights on under my jeans, the thickest socks, a couple shirts, long underwear, three coats, plus a scarf, gloves, and a hat. When we stepped outside, the sun was only just beginning to light the sky, and the temperature gauge still read -20C (-4F).

On the way to meet the people that would take us to the runway, my friend told me that today my name would be Masha, and that I should just let him do all the talking. I nervously laughed, hoping that no one would try and talk to me. 

We met up with the other Russians in a warehouse. Everyone had been waiting on us to go to the site where the plane would land. I didn't really know what was happening, and I couldn't figure out why people were dressing up in skydiving suits. At that moment, I concluded that we would just be flying the plane that these crazy fools were going to jump out of, which was fine by me.

But then the denial wore off when I saw the glint in my friend's eyes. When we got back into his car to follow the other vans to the  airplane, I frantically asked if we too would be jumping from the plane. He got the biggest smile on his face, laughed, and said, of course!

I froze (this time not because of the weather). This is not what I had signed up for. I had had no time to mentally prepare myself for jumping out of a plane. And not just any plane. An old, should be sitting in a museum somewhere, Russian war plane. 

Apparently, I had no need to fear, though, because they were of course going to provide an 'extensive' training secession for us...A training secession where my brain was scrambling to translate all the important things that were being said.
I kept sending my friend sidewise glances, but by the time I found myself strapped into the practice parachute-jump contraption, I realize there was no turning back. 

The one thing that was constantly repeated, and was simple enough for me to understand, was that we were to be sure to keep our feet and legs TOGETHER, especially when we were about to touch the ground. It seemed simple enough.

After our training was done, we were taken to this table that had been set up alongside all the parachutes and the vans, where a woman gave us two pens and two release forms to fill out. At this point I could no longer be Masha, and I was secretly hoping that my American citizenship would keep me grounded. It, however, did nothing to help my situation.

By the time we could make out the sun rising above my friend's favorite mountain in Arsenyev, it was time for us to suit up and put our 20 minutes of knowledge to the test.

Here is a video of my friend jumping and then me jumping. It wasn't very high off the ground, only 800 m, and we both landed without incident. Still, I definitely closed my eyes for this part...

It was all worth it in the end. Slowly floating down to the ground, looking out at the surrounding neighborhoods, I felt very free. (Also very cold). And at the end of it all, we even had a little graduation, with diplomas to prove we had survived!

But wait! There's more.

Because I had been such a good champ about having to jump out of a plane, I guilt tripped my friend into taking us to see one of the rare Primorski krai tigers on our way back to Vladivostok. 
My friend had talked to someone who knew that there was at least one tiger at this nature preserve not too far from Arsenyev. To get there we just had to drive almost to one of the Chinese border crossings, which meant hours of watching the beautiful steppe landscape pass by our windows. 

When we finally got to this preserve, I quickly started questioning the legitimacy of it. We first had to drive through one of the poorest neighborhoods I have had to see in Russia, then take a turn by this interesting war monument, and then walk through a tree-enclosed path, which took us to this out of place gate, which led us to a woman sitting at a bench in what looked liked her own backyard.

My friend asked her how the tigers were doing, and she said there was only one left, as the older one had died a few months earlier. She told us keep walking until we got to the cages where we could see, not only the tiger, but some bears, foxes, and other winter cats. 
Soon we both caught a glimpse of something orange and black moving in the forest, and Almas, the tiger, kindly climbed into his feeding cage so that we could get a better look. 

The cages were poorly built out of random materials, and at a few moments I was a littler afraid that some of the bears might get out. It also, sadly, brought up the awful feelings I thought I had left for good at the circus...but I held strong.
Like I said, the whole thing didn't really seem like a legitimate place for scientists to study the life habits of such a majestic creature, as my friend explained it. However, I still ended up giving the old man and woman who seemed to run the place 600 rubles to help feed the tiger (and maybe the other animals, too). I can only hope that Almas eats a hearty meal on my behalf...

But that's pretty much it. The rest of our trip was just spent in the car getting back to Vladivostok. We stopped to eat delicious sandwiches that my friend's grandmother made, and we saw some classic Russian things along the way (pictured below)
It was, all in all, a wonderfully exciting weekend, and I am happy to say I made it out alive. Слава Богу!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Catching Up...

I knew that there would be some point in the semester where my blog posts would end up taking the back burner, for which I apologize. But! I will at least try to fill in some of the gaps now....

I can now say I have seen more movie-theater movies while in Russian, than I did the entire 4 months of my summer in Flagstaff. And, on the whole, I think I can say the whole Russian movie going experience is much more enjoyable. For example, it is exciting to not even know what movie you are watching until 20 minutes have pasted and you are able to put two and two together- which is exactly happened when I saw Taken 2. Moreover, the seats are, for some reason, ten times more comfortable than any movie theater seats I have sat in before, save the living room theater couch style movie theaters in both Portlands.  And the 3D glasses in Russia are also are ten times weirder looking than one could imagine, and weirdly enough they reuse them.

I have now finally seen a circus that I will never forgot. Apparently, my parents did take me to a pretty big circus many years ago, but my younger and wiser self promptly put the whole experience out of my mind. The Russian circus, I think unfortunately, will always be a dear memory of my time here.
So it was kind of funny in the beginning because all my American friend and I were by far the oldest people there (this is discounting the babyshkas and other parents that had to be there because of their kids). And when the circus first started, the music, the crowd, and the old Soviet style lighting illuminating the dusty red carpeting was all very exciting. However, the minute the different animal acts were brought out...we all kind of wanted to cry. In fact, there was one point where a few tears did escape my eyes before I had to turn my head away. Let's just say that all of their camels looked like they were staring death in the face, and the fact that their act went on longer than any of the other animal acts only made matters worse. At least the elephants didn't look too bad...

A few weeks ago, Ithaca and I had our first 'getting lost in Vladivostok' experience, as well, which I think is pretty impressive. First of all, I was not the one that got us lost (To my family: I know you won't believe this, but it's true). Secondly, we had a pretty long run of not getting lost here, especially considering the fact that all the city planning here is so confusing. And lastly, we made a new friend, which resulted in a free (very long) bus ride.
Basically, Ithaca and I got adventurous on our way back from the supermarket in the center, and we decided to take a different bus back to campus. It wasn't that we chose the wrong bus, but it was just that at the spot we should have gotten off at (as per my suggestion), we thought the bus would stop closer to the entrance to VSUES, so we continued on. Soon however, I realized that it kind of looked like we were on our way to a small town just outside of Vladivostok, in the complete wrong direction. Hope was regained when the bus finally turned around and started going back the way we came...until everyone but us got off the bus and the bus pulled up to a dead end and the bus driver shut everything off.  Seeing as how we obviously didn't know what we were doing, he turned around and asked us where we wanted to go. After explaining that we were studying at VSUES and just needed to get back there, he introduced himself as Yuri (I think) and started asking us all these questions. During all of this some of his other friends got on the bus and they started speaking in a completely different language. I forget where he was originally from, but when we finally had to give it up and tell him we were from the States, he (like everyone else we meet here) started to asked us clarifying questions about differences between here and there. His only question, though, was about when girls and guys usually get married (thank goodness Ithaca and I had just discussed this in our speaking class the day before...). From this conversation we learned he had a wife who was wayyy younger than him and they had a baby and were trying to make their way in Vlad. I finally asked him if he knew when we would be getting back to the school and he said he thought it would be 30 more min. At least point Ithaca and I were ready for a long evening, especially since 30 min in Russia could mean a lot of different things.
In the end however, more people got on the bus, and we started getting back into territory that we knew. And by the time we finally made it to the correct stop, when we tried to pay our 15 rubles, Yuri was so kind and let us go for free.
All in all, an unplanned success.

Other interesting things include, of course, more Russian nature adventures. Something I really didn't expect to love about the Russians is their extreme, but somewhat warped, love of nature. Our one Russia friend Jenya is always wanting to go out into the countryside for shashlik (Russian BBQ) or out to the sea to watch the waves. The reason I say it's a little warped is due to the fact that Russians don't tend to treat nature with the love that they actually feel for it. Example? A few weekends ago when we went out into the forest to make shashlik again, we just made a small fire in the middle everything. Jenya was just going to pile some sticks in the middle of the leaf ridden ground and call it good. But thankfully for us Americans, the Russian forest lived to see another day, and we did our best to make a fire pit, clear leaves away, and then extinguish the fire before we left. Without that very illegal fire, however, I can say we all would have been actually frozen. It might be getting too cold for these nature adventures.

As far as the sea goes, yesterday I went out to lunch at the same beach spot were we got in our first and only Vladivostok ocean swim,  only this time it was overcast and the strongest coldest wind possible was blowing. Russians are, however, prepared for this and have created these little one room dinning room cabins that have little heaters and a huge window that looks out onto the sea. It was wonderful being able to sit inside, eating very tasty Armenian food, and just meditate on the waves crashing down in the wind. I want something like this to exists on the coast of Oregon.

Lastly, I will end with an account of my first authentic Russian family dinner. The back story as to how I got roped into this is a little too long and complicated, but last weekend I was invited to go with my friend out to dinner with his extended family to celebrate the christening of his cousin's new born baby. Needless to say, I was extremely nervous because I knew that I was going to be overwhelmed by Russian and I didn't know if I was going to be able to communicate. Thankfully though, my friend quickly informed everyone we met that I was from America and so his family thought it best to seat me next to another one of his cousins, who is 11, so that maybe I could communicate with someone on my own level...
Everyone was very friendly to me, and the baby was absolutely adorable, but I still couldn't believe all of this was happening at like 8 or 9 at night in a Chinese restaurant. My disbelief also stemmed from the fact that I was immediately taking toast after toast with the family. Had it just been a normal dinner, with no celebration attached, I think I could have been ok. As it was, however, I hit a point where I was unsure if getting out of my chair would look as smooth as I wanted it to. I got lucky though, because my friend went off to talk with some of his family member and I was able to just talk to the 11 year old, while hiding my vodka shots at various spots on the table where no one would notice them, until I sobered up enough to gracefully leave. All the Russians thought it was sooo funny that Americans just don't toast that much. But, I thought it was funny that at the end of the evening the, now more drunk, uncles were coming up to me and inviting me to come along with my friend to their houses sometime for dinner. One of them even took me aside and said "I Russian...,' which I really appreciated.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Perhaps two of my favorite pictures from this past weekend:

Monday, October 8, 2012

X-Treme Russia

This weekend I had, perhaps, my most brilliant idea ever (even though Ithaca and I decided that the whole weekend seemed like the perfect setting for a horror film about Americans who end up getting killed in the Russian countryside).
What follows is a recounting of our amazing Russian adventure…

The Characters
The Americans:
Meganka (Me)-The one from the very hot place.
Dylan- The one from the place that no one has ever heard about.
Ithaca- The one from Old Russia
The Russians:
Jenya- A Russian engineer finishing up his degree at VSUES. He has helped to plan and create a system of atomization in the assembly line for Russian car companies.
Sasha- A 25 year old woman who has lived in Vladivostok for all of her life and has a two year old son.
Alexander (Sasha)- The friend, and colleague, of Jena.
Julia- The girlfriend of Alexander.

The Back Story
Thursday night my friend, Jordan, came into my room and wanted to warm up some Russian milk, add sugar to it, and then drink it so that we could sleep off more of our sickness. We soon realized that they had already closed the kitchens for the night, and so we went on a mission to try and find a hot water heater or a microwave. As luck would have it, when we were in one of the other American's room, we ran into a Russian by the name of Jenya. Jordan had previously met him, but he was super excited to meet another American, and he proceeded to ask me a million questions. Once he found out that we wanted warm milk but had not way to heat it, he had us follow him to his room where he quickly started taking care of us. He heated our milk, and then when we were done with that he washed our cups and made us tea. He made sure we were comfortably seated, and as soon as I coughed one too many times, he forced me to take some medicine that would make my throat feel better.
Eventually, Jordan and I told him that we needed to go to sleep finally. But, before we could leave, he said something to Jordan and next thing I knew I had promised him that I was going to go somewhere with him on Saturday. When we left the room, I asked Jordan what had just happened, and she told me that I was going to go to some Russian cabin out in the country side, although even she wasn't that sure where. {She wanted to come along but this weekend she had to fly to Moscow to take the it wasn't really an option for her}.
Friday, I receive a text from Jenya telling me that I should check my e-mail because he's sent me some more information about our adventure. And after reading it, I got very excited. Roughly translated I had been invited along to stay at a little bed in breakfast type place near by an old mountain, which millions of years ago had been underwater and was a huge coral reef. The plan was to go explore some of the caves and then see a waterfall before heading back to Vladivostok on Sunday.
So I quickly convinced my confidants (Dylan and Ithaca- who almost stupidly backed out because they often think my ideas suck), and we all, somewhat wearily, decided that we would see where Jenya (a Russian guy that I had just met and they had never seen) was going to take us.

Act I
8:10 AM, Jenya came to my room and I introduced him to Dylan and Ithaca before we followed him to his Prius, which was parked outside of the university. Thankfully, Jenya was so excited that we were Americans and he was very patience that we were able to talk in a mixture of broken Russian and English as we started driving away from Vladivostok. He told me that we had to stop to pick up another girl on our way, and so next thing we know we’re driving on some back road with a mixture of different shack type houses and cute little country homes with gardens along the side. Eventually, on the left there was a girl standing by the fence with some bags and she hopped into the car. Her name was Sasha.
From Sasha’s house, we make our way back the highway and stop at a grocery store to get food for the weekend. Here there was some confusion, as Ithaca Dylan and I didn’t know if we were each buying our own food or if one person was going to buy a lot and then get reimbursed, but our sub-par Russians skills eventually cleared it all up. However, as we were carrying the food out of the store, Sasha and Jenya both realized that we had nothing good to drink. So we went back into the store for some ‘Russian drinks’ and some juice.
In the parking lot, we met up with Alexander and Julia, and Dylan hopped into their car. This was the true beginning of our adventure.

Act II
None of us really knew where we were going exactly, or how long it was going to take, but I mentioned to Sasha that I definitely would need to pee before we got too far on our way, so we took a pit stop at a roadside café/kiosk. We took some time to eat some sandwiches and drink some tea, and then we were soon driving deep into the Russian country side.
Jenya was a wonderful conversationalist, and we talked about everything from genetically modified food to our hobbies. He and Sasha I think really like the opportunity to practice some of their English.
Then, randomly, Jenya pulled off on the side of the road next to these twiggy trees that had hundreds of small strips of fabric tied into them. They explained to us that it’s a Russian tradition to make a wish and then tie a piece of fabric on a limb of one of the trees. So that’s exactly what we did.  

Once we got back in the cars…we got lost. Thankfully, however, Alexander asked these people on a motorcycle for directions and they led us to the correct ‘road.’


After pretty successfully driving their small cars though all the puddles and divots, we came to a river. This being Russia, the bridge over the river would have killed the underside of most cars, so the next best option in front of us was to drive the cars across the river. I was very nervous and was half expecting this to be where we would have to turn around and give up our countryside holiday. But someone was smiling down on us and both cars made it across the river like it was no big deal.

And thankfully not too far after our forging of the river, we made it to our destination!

Act IV
While I still don’t really know the name of the place we were at, we all piled our stuff into our room and a very nice Russian woman, who was one of the owners of the place, showed us all around the property. She told us that we had arrived too late in the day to be able to do all the hiking we had planned on, but we decided that we would cook some food and then go on a three mile hike.
This was one of the times where I really wished my Russian was better than it was because I felt like the Russians were just taking care of us and we couldn’t do anything to help because we had no idea what was really going on. But we did start trying to make some form of conversation over the meal.
Before we left on our hike, the owner of the B&B (for lack of a better name) sat us down and drew us three different maps of where we could go hiking, and I think she was explaining all the cool things we would see. It was perhaps one of my favorite moments of the weekend because it was just funny to watch a bunch of us huddled around a woman drawing crazy lines and circles and mountain like things on paper. 

But, with our professionally drawn maps, we headed out in the forest, with everything from extra layers to flash lights in case we didn’t make it back before dark.
Act V
It’s hard to describe the places we went on our hike, especially since us Americans really had no idea what our final destination was/if we had a final destination, but it was great fun to just follow a bunch of Russians around. Eventually, after climbing up the steepest path up a mountain I may have ever seen, we were able to explore a few caves and just enjoy the amazing view.

During the whole hike we had a lot of good conversations about movies and different animals that live in our respective countries. We would teach the Russians a word in English for every new word we learned in Russian. One of the more memorable lessons include us trying to explain to the Russians that in English you have cheeks on your face, but you also have cheeks on your butt. They got a kick out of that, let me tell you.
I also got my own firsthand experience with Russian chivalry. So I had brought my small over the shoulder purse to carry my camera, some flash lights, and our passports in case we died and our bodies needed to be identified. However, about halfway through the hike Jenya decided that I could no longer carry my purse, and he carried it for me the rest of the way up the mountain and all the way to our room. Once I tried to take it from him, but he immediately took it back and told me it was nothing for him. As we were climbing down the mountain, which was perhaps ten times more dangerous and difficult than climbing up it, Jenya also let me use him as support so that I didn’t slip and roll away. And at any point if you were too far behind all the Russians would constantly call back and ask if you were ok. Just another example of how kind Russians are.
Act VI
Once we successfully got back to our temporary home just a little after dark, we started the relaxing part of our weekend. We buddled up in our coats and headed outside to cook shaslik, which is pretty much the Russian version of BBQ but without the sauce. This is also when the toasting to new friends and our amazing day began. 

And after we finished eating as much shaslik as our stomachs could possible handle, it was time for our first official Russian banya experience, which is basically like a sauna, but not.
Imagine wrapping yourself in a thin sheet and entering a small room with two stoves and having 200 degrees F of heat slap you in the face. I’ve never been in such a hot environment where it was hard to breathe before. Inside, they also have a bunch of branches with leaves on them that they dip in water and whack each other on the back with, which looks like some awful flogging technique but actually feels like a nice massage. However, any banya experience is not complete without also jumping into a cold body of water. So, Ithaca, Julia, and I all got up the guts to run outside after getting nice and toasty in the banya and we dove head first into a freezing cold pool. We then quickly put our sheets back on and ran back into the banya, which at that point felt like the perfect temperature.
When we weren’t sweating all of the water out of our bodies, we continued to toast with the Russians, discuss anything we could figure out how to explain, and sing/dance to a mixture of English and Russian songs. Dylan and I both had to make toasts at one point, and thanks to our wonderful Russian teachers back at Lewis and Clark we didn’t make a fool or ourselves. Dylan toasted the end of the Cold War, which all the Russians thought was pretty funny, and I toasted the beautiful Russian nature that we had spent all day exploring, which they thanked me for. Success


The next day we cooked up some mushrooms the Russians had found in the woods, with some potatoes, and then packed up and headed back to Vlad. Needless to say, Ithaca and slept a fair amount of the way back. But when I was sleeping, Jenya and I continued to try and talk about things. One of the more interesting things we talked about was Russian sky-diving. It’s only 30 dollars here. 

Perhaps it will be our next adventure???