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.