Thursday, May 30, 2013

Babes Who Were Abandoned

After an hour of meandering through courtyards, parks, and small lanes, I finally found the hospital where "the abandoned babies" were.

Just going to quickly throw this out there - I'm not a fan of that phrase. Just like we (I) don't say "disabled people" (I generally say "people living with developmental disabilities") - these are children who were abandoned. There will be so much more to them in this life then their abandonment. It may form their life and play a huge roll in it, but it's not who they are.

Enough about that.

I'm going to try and tell this as straight-up as I can. It's easy to sensationalize things -- but I'm trying my best to keep this as real and legit as possible.

I met up with Laura outside the hospital and she took me upstairs to the babydepartment of the hospital. There were pictures of breasts and babies sucking on them everywhere. I approved. She took me into a small room where I was handed a damp scrubs-shirt from a pile (things don't always dry here) and some slippers, since I didn't have my own designated-hospital-slippers yet.

Down the hall you could already hear the yelps of active children. She opened the door and there, in four cribs, were four babies/toddlers.

Loving on them is going to be part of my regular life during my time spent living in Ukraine.

I'm not going to go far into what we did - we did what you do with kids. We hugged them, read to them, played with them, cuddled them when they cried.

We did the sort of things kids need.
The thing is, for these kids, this is not the norm.
This is what happens when people from the church come in to visit them.

The state can pay for the babes to be fed and... and.. that's just about it, honestly. The first time I went the hospital, the women from the Nehemiah Center I was going with got a call from them asking her to bring some more diapers.

When I asked, "Is there a need for diapers?" I was told that not only was there not enough money for diapers for the babes, but for medicine as well. I'm going to see what I can do about that... still looking into a good way to fundraise some of the money but not through a system that will take away a bunch of the money in fees.

Anyways, as I was saying, the state can pay for their basic needs - but these kids don't get the "luxury" of being loved, cared for, played with, or stimulated.

Their current lives are spent in these cribs and... that's it.

So we pulled them out so they could run around.
They cried and cried when we put them back to leave.

I don't have much to say at this point. But, if you have a kid, try to imagine them spending weeks and weeks at a time inside a crib. Imagine that being their world. I don't know...

I've been praying a lot.
And I feel driven to love all the more.

Want to help?

Currently, the best way you can help is with your dollars. I'm still checking on what needs we have, but from talking to the woman who set me up with the hospital, they are short on diapers and medicine. Clothes and toys can be washed and reused, but there's no way to reuse a bottle of medicine.

So -- I have this button:

I'm going to talk straight about what's happening.

That button puts the money straight (straight!) into my own personal bank account. From there, I'll withdraw it as cash at the ATM and it will be used, directly, to buy what they need. There's no organization to go through, here -- no "Abandoned Babies At the End of The Hallway" fund. You'll just have to trust me on this one, that I'm an honest person, and that your dollars will go straight to helping out these babies.

If, by any chance, you do want to support or encourage me financially in my time here (it would probably go towards getting the shoes I need to wear at the hospital, bus fare, sunscreen, stamps, and a bar of dark chocolate), you can still send the cash via that button, just add a note (they'll give you the option for that) and specify that, "Hey -- $5 of that is for you to enjoy! Go get yourself some carrots!" Otherwise, it's all going to them, which is just swell!

This is what I wrote as my status update on Facebook, today, on June 10:

Folks have been asking about the babies who have been abandoned I've been loving on here in Ukraine. I can now speak from experience, with them, and what I've witnessed and seen and learned. The babies aren't necessarily orphans. Their existence is a crib and they don't really get any love or attention except for when their diapers are changed. They don't even get picked up for feedings -- the bottles are propped up by a blanket. Their bottoms, oh goodness, they are completely raw with diaper rash! A lot of them sound very sick when you listen to them breath.

I go in a few times a week for a few hours and I cuddle them, sing to them, dance with them, play with them, and love on 'em as much as possible.

There is a huge huge need for diapers and medicine (at the hospital!). I have a list I was given of the medicines that they need. I said I would go ahead and buy them. I've already bought and brought some diapers with the money some people donated the hospital ladies were excited about that.

Yo! Folks of America! Canada! Switzerland! Alaska! Does this tug on anyone's heartstrings? If this speaks to you at all and you feel like helping out, your dollars would much be appreciated. The dollars will go straight into my bank account but, from there, I will personally use them to go buy the things the babies need but the hospital can't provide (diapers, medicine).

I'm sorry I'm using Paypal, I know it isn't perfect... but it's easy! I'll use every gathered dollar for the kids.

There are a few blog posts on them already which I will attach.

This system is broken, folks. In Ukraine, someone like a doctor might only make $150 a month. They're making nothing (the girls I know who work 14 hour days make less in a day then what I make in an hour in Alaska). You would think this would be compensated for with cheaper prices but, the thing is, they aren't much cheaper. The cost of living is not significantly lower than the states. I know that your dollars aren't "fixing" the broken system -- but they are making some beautiful children a lot more comfortable and getting a little, little bit more healthier.

If you can't give but still want to help, pass on this link. The need is real.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Updates From My First Days in Uzhgorod

Across the valley from the fourth floor window.
 I can't say I've settled in, much, but I'm starting to discover what my daily life will look like. Here's just a briefing on what's been up.

  • I'm currently living on the 3rd floor which reminds me of one of the finest songs from my teenager years titled, well, "Room on the Third Floor" by McFly. It enters into my head about five times each day.
  • There is a mouse that is following me from room to room. I'm on my third room now. I started in room 14 and then moved on to room 13 and 11 because, well... well... it's not that I'm scared of the mouse, we're pretty good friends now, actually, it's just that I don't feel like sleeping with him in the room with me.
  • This is my fourth night here.
  • I just spoke with the first native speaker of English that I've spoken to in person in well over a month. I keep trying to simplify my English and separate my words for her. We'll be flatmates starting on Monday. She's rad. She has a accordeon on the stairs that she brought over from Germany (but she's from England) as a gift for the Roma/Gypsy's (still figuring out the term that they desire for me to use).
  • I've been hanging out a lot at the Montessori school that's here at the Centre.
  • Someone here remember when my brother came here almost a decade ago!
  • I'm being fed by a Georgian cook which is pretty rad. They cook me all of my meals.
  • I get a fresh salad three times a day which is also rad.
  • They're chill with my allergies - also rad.
  • On my second morning, I went to the cafe (also in the center) and there were two lovely young (20 years old) women who told me we could hang out and get to know each other. 
  • My stomach is not happy with something and I can't figure out what. Really sharp pains...
  • A lot of my clothes smell like mildew because of the 30 hours they spent wet in my bags on the train after the downpour on my way to the station in Moscow.
  • Been doing a lot of Bible and Jesus-related readings. Opening my eyes again.
  • Camp for foster kids and their families starts next week.
  • Tomorrow at 11 AM I go to the hospital for the first time to meet the "abandoned babies" as they've been called.
  • Really, really looking forward to moving in on Monday. I think I'm going to be in a room that's totally empty except for three beds. No closet. No drawers. Looks like I'll be living out of boxes again.
  • I start teaching English next Monday. I'll be teaching daily at the Montessori school and twice a week with a group of beginners.
  • So green.
  • Lots of folks have their own gardens and chickens here.
  • My favourite place to hang out in is the glass pyramid which is the entire fourth floor.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Why Am I Settling For a While?

"Why Ukraine? Why settling?"

I am in Uzhhorod (Uzhgorod), Ukraine right now (9 minute walk from Slovakia) and will be for the next 3+ months at the Nehemiah Centre.

"Whaaat.... but.. but.. don't you like changing beds every 1.6 nights?"

Yes. Indeed. Most certainly. But I need a short season (3 months can count as a season, right?) in one place.


(and this will be me explaining why I have the guts to spend 3 months in one place as if the concept is totally unreasonable and unfathomable to the general world)

To develop deeper bonds and relationships.

Constantly moving around opens up a lot of opportunities to meet all sorts of interesting rad folks -- but, when you change location every few days, you never get the chance to really know someone. I want to have time to really get to know some humans over here in Eastern Europe. I want to invest in some relationships and grow through them. While I value the lessons I learn in brief encounters, I think a lot can come from extended periods of time as well.

To have a purpose.

I think I covered this one earlier but I'll restate it here. In travelling around, I felt like I was living for me - this life is about so much more than that.

Because I'm only on this side of the globe, in the first place, because I was planning on living in the Ukraine for a while.

Russia was not on the original agenda. Nor was Norway...

Because traveling costs dollars.

Or kroner... travelling is not cheap. Sort of. Ok, actually it is if you travel in a Magi-style (I just checked out my friends travels and, honestly, was pretty shocked when I saw a glimpse of what his budget allows - love you, man, but travelling as a "poor college student" doesn't normally allow one to even consider booking a $100 hotel room for a night). I've actually kept spending to a very, very bare minimum - quite likely I am spending, per month, less than what most folks spend on rent each month. Most of my money is spent on vegetables and train-fare. Other than that, it's been affordable - thank you amazing CS hosts.

Anyway, I'm currently settled in a place where, if I'm helping out, they cover my food and shelter me as well in a sweet apartment. This, folks, is sustainable. This is doable. This is how you can, in fact, live without having your life be centred around money. This is the kind of arrangement I find pretty rad. It also allows me to stay on this side of the globe for a whole lot longer.

I get to establish a rad routine.

1 hour of Russian studies.
1 hour of Bible studies.
Go for a walk.

These things are sometimes harder to maintain when each day you wake up in a new city and there are things to experience.

I get to hang up my clothes on clothes hangers in a closet.

To really be a part of a community.

To be able to buy a pumice stone for my feet and not have to keep the wet thing in a bag as I move on and then have it get gross.

I can now send and receive letters (Thank you Hannah! It arrived today!).

And hug babies. 

Cut It Out... Again and Again

Happy First Birthday
Baby Margaret and Her Cake
I'm trying to recalibrate my body.

It's back to a stage where it craves sugar heavily (in a sense of uncontrollable addiction) and I know I need to get it back to no-sugar right now. Today.

To help with the transition, I have grapes, carrots, and a pear.

Starting now, I need to get back to eating how I eat in Alaska and America, the way that helps me function, think clearer, and feel good. It's been hard in Russia as I'm not always sure how to refuse food, which has all been enjoyed, even if it's made me feel ill.

When I get to Ukraine, I will be extra, extra strict because if I start out relaxed, things will go downhill. I know what my body likes and I know how to feed it. Since I will be living in one place, it will be easier to keep a store of vegetables in the fridge for consumption when hunger strikes.

I'm excited to feel more energetic and for my complexion to clear up again. I don't have crazy-zits, but my face does look different from this change in diet (more white flours, sugar, and dairy).

And if I slip up? Move on. Try again. Try again and again until I'm back to where I need to be.


Update: I'm now in the headachey-withdrawal stage, which is great! It means things are happening. I already feel like I'm not craving as much.

Update II: I'm getting better and better at turning down sweets. I did have a few dates after dinner yesterday, though.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Question Answered - Where Do You Want to Go?

I met this guy on the side of the road of a dead end in Uzhhorod.
 Where is one place outside of the US and one place inside the US you want to go besides the places you have already been and are planning to go in the immediate future?

A place outside of the US I want to go... hmm.

I really have a desire to check out Ithaca, Greece. There's a poem about Ithaca that's been a sort of anthem for my life since 2008 and I'd love to experience the real one, sort of bring everything to a full circle. I also have a strong desire to go to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. I'm going to try and make that one a reality before 2014 hits. I know you asked for one place...

So if I were to pick one -- Scotland. I want to go to Scotland.

I think curiosities for Africa and South America will come in a different season of life or with the right opportunity. I'm already curious about South East Asia but this is not the time for that, yet.

Russia is funny because I didn't have a desire to go there until after I had bought the ticket. It was a week or two after I had decided to go that I started to get excited. Now, I'm curious into oblivions.

Inside the United States, I want to visit the National Parks! All of them. I want to visit them and take pictures to send home to Grandfather.

I also feel driven to stay in a bunch of small towns for around three or more months each to see what makes them tick. West Virigina, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Louisianna have me curious right now. I know I'll be in Kentucky someday. I find Ohio to be a complete mysetry.

But, to turn that into the answer of "one place," I would have to say Kentucky (the desire came during a trip I made to Wisconsin back in 2009).

No matter where I go, though, I know I'll always be a West Coast girl. Cascadia is my home.

Questions Answered - "What made you want to travel around in the first place?"

By Hannah Roberts in Nottingham, New Hampshire
Population 3,701
 Someone (not sure who) posted a few questions in the comments section and I thought I'd answer them thoroughly here. Thanks. If anyone else has any questions, you can post 'em in any comment box or keep 'em in your head.

"What made you want to travel around in the first place?"

For the first 16 years of my life, my entire existence was contained within Cascadia. I was raised in Kenmore, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, and was given the stable, reliable, predictable, loving upbringing that some kids only dream of.

Christmas Jam Session

We never moved.
My parents always loved each other and never fought except over if there was going to be oatmeal in the cookie dough or not.
Music was always being created under our roof.
There was always food on the table.
I went square dancing every Wednesday night.
I knew my parents would love me no matter what.

Life was solid.

I also had been on the "advanced placement" route for six years, since fifth grade. I was pushing myself academically, thriving when I was challenged. This was the norm. I was on route to try to attend university. I had my life all paved out for me. Economics was my aim.

Then I got to 10th grade, my first year of high school. I found myself spending all of my free time working hard and frequently stressed out. I started to think, "Is this really how I want to spend my life?" I was trying to figure out if it was even all worth what it was mentally doing to me. What was the point?

I started to think about my life and how it would pan out. I would be in school for 13 years, then high education for 4-6 years, and then plug into a job. It was one giant track that society had

I didn't want that. It felt like a waste of time to me. I felt like I would end up in this rut called -- working all day so I can go sleep in a house so I can feel rested to work.

So I signed up to be an exchange student (and this is where I link to a blog-post from May 2007 when I was 16).
I went to Switzerland.
I thought I could grow in some new ways there.
And that's where it all started.

But the Cold Sucks When You're Alone

This is a couple year old post I never put up.

N: But the cold sucks when you're alone.
Me: Easy solution.
N: None.
M: No solution? I'll get you a sweater.
N: I'll still be lonely.
M: Jesus?
N: :)
M: Fully agree. You got Austin-weather + Jesus, can't go wrong.
N: Just want him to send me some reliable friends, that's all. Maybe a nice breeze too. Ha.
M: You ok? Don't you have incredible mates or are you in a time of transition? Anyways, I'll be prayin' for ya (for a breeze tambien).
N: I haven't had a solid gorup of friends for a while. I graduated last week... a huge time of transition.

Sounds like my life story. Bit of a drifter I am - in a social sense.
I certainly haven't ever had that always-do-everything-with-them-all-the-time group of friends.

I've never had a solid crew that I could call up whenever or that is known for being with one another.

This takes me back to high school when life existed in groups. You know they existed. You saw them at lunch time.

Now, I did have a group that I sat with, but I never felt like I was an actual member of that group. When the group made plans, sometimes I was invited, but not always. I usually felt like my inclusion was out of obligation at times. Not always. Prom came along and we all went together. Post-gradutation I was with them.

But apart from that, I never really felt like I belonged with that group, or any for that matter.

And sometimes I hated it.
Sometimes I wanted to belong.
Sometimes I wanted to feel like people wanted me there.

And now I am so glad that I didn't.

I'm now grateful that I never was allowed to get too comfortable.

See, I think part of the reason why I had to go through that (not saying God made me go through it or that it was essential, but more or so noting the good that came out of it) was because I was still developing myself as a person (always will be). I was a a time where I would have been easily melded and conformed had I let myself be too comfortable. If the desire to fit in had taken over, I think I might have lost myself a bit. Maybe I never would've left.

But the seclusion let myself grow in independence.

I learned to be content by myself. I learned to amuse myself with long walks in the 10th grade that took me all over. Through my documentations, I became excited with the little things that happened in my life.

And this is where I stopped writing.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Routine of Readjusting

Readjusting to a new country (or state or city or oblast) is feeling ritualistic. It's becoming a routine that is reminiscent of brushing my teeth each morning and night.

It's wandering and ATM's and learning to convert currencies on the fly.
It's monitoring spacial proximity and observing 98% of the time.
It's figuring out their public transportation system without dropping pace.
It's going to the deli and eating anything with carrots.
It's wearing sunglasses because I'm still learning not to make contact with every living breathing thing.
It's identifying landmarks to assist the gut feelings that guide those feather feet.
It's spending an hour in the grocery store just to buy one thing.

It's being in the moment because I can't afford to be elsewhere (until it's blog time, then I hope to any moment but the present).

Friday, May 24, 2013

Hey... I'm in Ukraine

Back in August, I decided, without all too much thought or interest, that I was going to Ukraine.

9 months (5 spent in active transition) and over 15,400 miles and 77 bed changes (during the past 4.5 months) in 28 cities in 5 countries and 10 train trips (over 187 hours) and 4 days on a ferry and 8 border crossings later...

I'm here.

I am in Uzhgorod, Ukraine - right where I said I would be.

I'm in a room and I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be here or not. I don't know if they knew I was coming this day... they knew I was coming, just perhaps not today. I stand on a desk to stick my head out of the window.

There is a building that looks like it was meant to be a fun slide. There are sheep and a large garden.

It's strange and comforting to think that my brother and a good number of my friends were here in this building, on these stairs, maybe in these beds, back almost a decade ago. They entered those gates. Emily Lynch might have peed in that toilet.

Mysterious Swelling Ankle and Fermenting Armpits

A man sleeps in a contorted position like a marionette whose joints weren't rightly put together. His mouth pushes the foul air in and out like a rumbling bellow, unabashedly open and gaping in a way you only can if you've slipped into another realm.

There's a new young man in our crew of four. “Calvin Klein” blatantly yells from his underwear as he sleeps in the fatal position. Though his t-shirt bore the American flag, his shirt claims pro-Ukraine.

Everyone town we pass is unfamiliar and adorable. Everything is a vibrant, luscious green that makes it seem as if someone got hold of the contrast toggle of reality and cranked it hard to the right to contrast with the desaturation I had experienced in Russia a few weeks ago of monotone browns and greys that I still managed to find inviting.

I can see the wind is active outside, causing the trees outside to ever so gracefully smash into each other (only trees can do things like that, you know) and wonder why we don't open the windows on our train which is turning into a human greenhouse. The air is humid in a way that I am scared to say is just a faint hint of what I'll experience this summer. Somehow, the notion to make another hot jar of jasmine green tea seemed like a good idea. The man above and opposite me has drunken too much and showered too little so that, when I stand up, it gives off the aroma of fermenting armpit. I'm pretending that it works like smoke and, if I keep my head close to the lower level the train, the smell will rise and escape my notice. Each time he adjusts his pillow, grey feathers float down and find their way into my tea and nose.

As I walk past to the bathroom, a man starts to ask his wife in a distorted, uncertain accent, “We go outside?” I had heard them speaking Russian before so I'm afraid it's only meant for my attention. Just speaking to someone else in my native tongue is not, in my opinion, an invitation to converse with you, so I pass on by. I appreciate it when people attempt English, for my sake, but I'd really be fine if they kept up with Russian as rarely their English goes beyond what I can comprehend in Russian. I keep looking straight ahead.

One man, today, was sweet. He gave me a monologue about someone in the bathroom as we waited together. I can imagine he was saying, “Dude, there's gotta be some lady in there really taking a huge dump or somethin'. I dunno, man. I'm afraid it's going to reek when we get in there. What else could be taking her this long? Maybe painting her belly with make-up?

After a minute or two of nodding, I finally informed him I didn't speak Russian. He asked me, in Russian, “You don't speak Russian?” “Nyet.” Then, in English he said, “You speak English?” “Yeah, I guess I do. Yes.” “Me English speak bad,” said he. Finally, after an extended pause he knocked on the bathroom door and tried the handle. No one was in there.

My ankle has swollen up from a mysterious bite I got in a park in Moscow. I got a few and my body reacted in a way I'm not used to. The babushka across from me, Purple Shirt, is fanning herself with the newspaper and it fans me as well and feels magnificent. Her hair is radical when she finally gets up from her nap.

It's odd to rouse myself from the perpetual nap that most of the occupants of the train have settled into. Sleep. Drink. Sleep. Cookie. Sleep. Newspaper. Sleep. Turn over. Insert a few occasional conversations and 22 hours will soon have passed.

I've been inventing games. See how much water you can drink. See how long you can go without peeing, even when you really have to. Enjoy the feeling of peeing when you really have to. See how long you can go without eating some more raw honey. See how long you can hold your breath. Count the bicycles. I tried to get all the Ukrainians to play Duck Duck Goose but I don't think they got the idea...

Reading back, this entire post may seem like a complaint, but, if you'll look at it, none of it speaks to my attitude toward it all. Altogether, I feel amicable and pleasant. Neutral. It doesn't feel like this is my life. I haven't considered wanting to be anywhere else to think about where that would be or desire to be elsewhere. I'm grateful to be here. I like riding on trains.

I think it's time to break open the sunflower seeds. With that, another few hours ought to pass. Maybe Beth Moore feels like yelling at me from my iPod for a while.

We Were All Aliens In Russia

There's a group of four of us, right now, in my area of the train, three sets of bunks. We had two more occupants but they have since detrained.

Everyone is jovial and we're all quick to laugh.

Folks laden with tea sets, demonic singing creepy babies, and wind chimes walk the aisles, peddling their wares like the train is the local market. Each time one passes, we all start to smirk which quickly turns into another laugh that is better than the shower I had yesterday as I scrubbed my scalp with baking soda.

We have Purple Shirt, Black Shirt, and Pink shirt.

Purple Shirt is the babushka of the group, her face gracefully adorned with well-earned wrinkles. You can tell she expects and hopes for community when she boards the train. She's really easy going and quick to tell you not to worry about something.

Pink shirt is across the aisle from us all.

Black shirt is a complete character. Oh how she laughs and guffahs and makes faces. I enjoy her. When I don't share a language with someone, it always helps when they can make faces with me. She has black hair that goes down to the middle of her back and bangs that cut strait across to frame her small face.

So far, I've turned own three treats. One was a sort of fried bread. I turned it down because it was white, a sugar trigger, for me. Then I was offered a walnut pastry, more white flour and sugar, and finally, two Lindt schoggi kugels (chocolate balls). I was so tempted to eat those schoggi kugels and still want to. But, I know that I need to get over this. I need to go through the headaches and come off this addiction. It's at the front of my mind at all time.

I started off the day with two boiled eggs, thanks to Mathilde of Quebec, and some rice and beans. I have a banana from pink shirt that I'll enjoy for lunch along with a bell pepper and spinach. I ate a little bit of мед (honey) because I've noticed my body does fine with honey. It's raw and from the farm Mathilde was volunteering on last week.

I guess most of this entire train is Ukrainian. They were all foreigners in Russia, like me.

I went to wait for the bathroom and there was a man already there. When the bathroom was finally vacated, he insisted I go in front of him. Russia has gentleman, but they generally, from my personal experience, that was a side of them you only witnessed once you knew them. I can only speak from my limited time in Russia and I guess it's a bit premature to evaluate an entire country by one man who let me go to the bathroom before him...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

When Margaret Calls the Border Security Man a Pig

You get to talk to Russia's border control not only when you enter but when you exit the country as well.

The man came onto the train  at around 8 in the morning and started to question. I gave him a blank stare, seeing if I could understand. Eventually, in Russian he asked, "You don't speak Russian, do you?" I smiled and said, "Nyet..."

and then, for some reason, I decided to say something in Russian.

Thing is, my Russian is crap and I only know a few phrases. The one I decided to say was from Soviet version of Winnie-the-Pooh. I have yet to meet someone in Russia of the right age who doesn't know it.

"Куда идем мы с Пятачком? Большой-большой секрет!"
"Koo-dah idiom muy s-pyatochkoam? Bowlshoy-bowlshoy say-kret."

It wasn't until I finished the second line that I realized what I was saying... and how this was the last, last place (of all places in Russia) I wanted to say it.

To translate, I was saying, "Where are we going, Pig? It's a big big secret!"

Yep. Of everything I could say the to the border control man, I called him a pig and told him that my destination was a secret.

He still let me leave.

“Welcome to Ukraine!” the border control man said to me. He had a young face, perhaps around my age, and a unibrow was comfortably occupying the space between above his nose (right where a unibrow universally belongs). He had a pleasant demeanour as he took my passport into his hands.

As most of the border control have, over here, he looked at my passport for more pleasure than business. “Ahhh... Washington! Capitol.”

“Nyet.” I said, because Washington D.C. Is nothing like the Washington I'll forever feel tied to.

I gestured to two sides of an imaginary map, “Washington Capitol. Washington State – Seattle.”

He kept looking at my information.

“Kiev?” he asked.
He raised his eyebrow[s] in surprise as the other ladies in my part of the train laughed with me. Americans generally don't miss out on going to Kiev, where our train was passing through. I told him I was going for “tourist” reasons, it's easier to explain my trip way.

And that's how I was sent off, with a “Welcome to Ukraine” and a warm smile.

I breathed in, exhaled, and gave him a full smile back. Oh, how welcome I felt. This welcome was even warmer than what I had been given in Norway. Ukraine, based on your border control guards, I think I'm going to like you.

Hey... it's Kiev.

Soggy American in Transit

Recently seen in Moscow: An American determinedly stumbling about in hiking boots, short green athletic shorts, and a soaked red raincoat.

I could not have been been more wet if I had decided to explore Snoqualmie Falls in the spring.

As I made my way to the train station, this evening, to catch my train from Moscow to Uzhgorod, the sky decided to take the fire-hose approach.

I grew up in Seattle and I've seen a lot of rain. I don't know, however if I've seen rain like this before. I likely have - just not in this situation.

If I could show you a picture of the streets, you would think that they were a picture of the Moskva River or something. I've got pretty rad hiking boots – they go up to my ankles and I've never had wet feet in them, even when exploring New York in a downpour. Upon merely crossing the street, the water gushed in over the tops and turned my socks to soaking. This happened over and over again. Later, when I got on the train, I was able to wring out around half a cups worth of water from them. I'm not sure if my shoes will ever be the same.

I had heard the rain from Vova's open window as I read Coraline (and finished it) by Neil Gaiman. I didn't, however, realize the magnitude of what was happening in those minutes. I zipped up my rain coat and tromped downstairs, bags in hand, swinging at my side in memoriam of Julie Andrews. Hood up, I opened the door. The entire parking lot was flooded. Someone had turned a faucet on our little corner of Moscow.

I had no reason to hesitate. Nothing to wait for. No time to “let it pass” and stepped out. Before I had walked a single block, my pants were thoroughly, thoroughly shamelessly soaked through. By block two, my quilt was heavy with the rain it absorbed. By block three, my shoes were filled to the brim with water.

“Golly.. I didn't know it could rain this hard?”
The sky answered back by pounding my head harder.
I grinned.

I can't say I ever felt discouraged or frustrated – just sort of mesmerized. It was warm outside and it felt like a shower. I wanted to strip down and scrub my scalp and roll in the mud... but I had a train to catch and Moscow mud almost always has shards of glass in it, I've noticed on my barefoot excursions.

Others were just as wet, I'm sure, but they didn't have pants that pitifully boasted it like mine which became semi-see-thru and stuck to my thighs worse than a new blues dancer who thinks it's their job to close their legs on yours as they dance, one of the worst habits to have but one of the easiest to kill.

The walk to the train station seemed a bit longer than usual and when I got there, there was a crowd down the stairs and into the tunnel of people not ready to brave the rain, knowing that in time, like all things, it would pass. I entered as a walking proof of why they ought not go out. A living testimony to the force of that awaited them.

I sludged down and people gave me a much different look than I normally receive in the Moscow metro. Water pooled around my feet each time I paused and finally I made it onto my subway. Never before had my rain-jacket soaked through – and I've put it to the test in some pretty vicious storms for elongated periods of time. Today, my forearms were dripping.

I sat down and, when I got up again, left a wet mess behind me.

It was only fourteen minutes to Kievskaya. People stared. I maintained a neutral expression that hinted at pleasure – although I think that in that moment, of everyone on the train, I had the right to wear the infamous frown of Moscow which bends faces into the most unbelievable of contortions like my childhood friend, Jenny, doing a backbend.

The long escalator reintroduced me to the sky again as we remerged from the underground trip and I found my train station. There, I opened up my bags to survey the damage. Everything I owned was wet except for what I keep in my backpack. This is why I use a waterproof backpack. The bag I have is from Chrome. It cost me more than I think normally appropriate for a backpack but I could throw that thing in a river and the contents of the main compartment would still remain dry and that makes it worth its weight in gold. It's built to be watertight for biking. Anyway, it's in there that I keep things that can't afford to get wet. I keep my camera in there with the netbook, Kindle, and iPod. Unfortunately my ticket had not been in there and it was falling apart – something that had the potential to give me grief later on in my journey. I thought about how I would mime out “it was raining so hard my ticket dissolved.”

For 25 rubels (nearly a dollar) I got admitted to the bathroom where I put on the driest pair of trousers I had, my light-green “athletic” shorts I like to wear under shorter-skirts in warm weather. I found one dry sock and put it on underneath the extra pair of leather shoes I had. I was a sight, and I knew it. I put eggs in my hiking boots and tried to dry out my underwear and long pants a bit underneath the dryer. “Oh, hey there Russian-model-lady. How you doin'?”

I marched back out and meandered until I found the platforms with the trains. Platform 14. Car 17. Seat 27.

I handed the lady my ticket. She looked at me and said something to the effect of, “Dude, this ticket is crazy wet and ripped, man. This is not really ok.” I acted out the rain and looked at her with a face like, “Man, I just crossed the Mississippi with all these bags and you're going to turn me away now?”

I handed it to her.

“Ooohh! Amerikanski!” she said with a hint of amusement.
“Da. Amerikanski.... a very wet American,” I said to myself.

She held onto my ticket but waved me through. I was not thrilled that she had my ticket. I was supposed to have it. They always give it back.

At the other end of the car was my seat... and about 8 people crowded in where I was supposed to be sitting. I think my face told all. Shock. Confusion. And then we all laughed together. I stepped back and soon, they all filed out until just one old woman was left.

Still laughing, I started to hang up my belongings on the bars that supported the bunk above me. This time, I had the perfect seat. A lower one in the groups of four (not the set of two parallel to the aisle). This meant I could spread out a lot more easier and sit upright in my own bed. I have a feeling most of what I have will still be wet by the time I reach Uzhgorod in 30 hours.

I went to check out my ticket and was not so reassuringly reassured that it was ok. I gave a thumbs up with a week smile and a questioning shrug. She said something in Russian and I said, “Da,” with a nod of approval.

Bow we're on our way. We've got an interesting, amicable group. Tonight we're all soggy, but I think tomorrow has potential. We'll see.

And thus ends my month in Russia. I know I'll be back there someday.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Train Culture of Russia

I'm currently in the midst of a 40 hour trip from the very north of Russia, the town of Murmansk, to Moscow. After one night in Moscow, I'll hop on a 30 hour train to Uzhgorod, Ukraine.

I'm quite content to be back on a train for a few nights and love the train culture of Russia, which is quite different than that of America.

My experience of trains in America is of enough extent that I feel I have the authority to make some comparisons.

On the trains in America, community isn't much encouraged beyond the Observation Lounge (a car with a more open seating arrangement for conversation). If you're travelling, you'll be in one of two seats facing forward in a long row of seats all facing the same direction. These are the cheap seats.

The cheap seats in Russia are similar in price of that in America. The layout of the entire train, though, is remarkably different. The train is comprised of bunk beds. On one side of the train, the bunks run alongside, parallel to the route of the train. The bottom bunk has a centre that can flip and latch up to become a table and the other sides of the bed are merely ends of the mattress. There is a secondary bunk above that with storage even higher up above that. Each bunk comes with a rolled up mat, a fluffy pillow that has already been used by leagues of traveling-Russians, two flat, stiff sheets, a thick blanket, and a towel. By each bunk is a netted storage shelf that sits at a 45 degree angle from the wall of the car, a hook for coats, and a bar to hang the towel on. On the other side of the aisle is something like an open room with two sets of larger-in-width bunks on either side, facing each other and perpendicular to the path of the train. There is a decent sized table between them and storage for bags beneath the bottom bunk. I'm currently in what is considered to be the “worst seat” on the train – I'm in one of the small side bunks (the singular ones parallel to the train). To get out of your seat is to put yourself in the aisle where folks are walking. For me, if my bunkmate desires to lay down, I'm out of a table and must go elsewhere. On the other side, you have a good amount of space between you and traffic and can sit upright and lounge easier. I'm very content, though, in my little nook.

As the train clickity-clacks on, kids climb about the bunks in tights (kids in just tights is a norm), run up and down the aisle, and try to make friends with fellow travellers. The adults tend to keep to themselves until something happens that cracks them open. But, once they've been opened, you're set with a dear friend for the rest of the trip. It's worth the effort. My first experience was definitely tops. All of us in the row, on both sides of the aisle, conversed and other people joined us. You can make some golden connections here, but the Russians are also gold at avoiding eye contact for extended periods of time. I once sat across a young women for 2 hours and we never made eye contact – although she adjusted her eyebrows and checked her face every 7 minutes with her mirror for the entire trip.

A huge part of travelling is eating and few board the train without a plastic sack full of food. I've yet to see a pattern in the food they like to eat. Each person tends to, though, bring their own mug on board, in a plastic bag, from which they constantly have a supply of tea. Everyone has a plastic bag with a mug in it and, if you forgot yours, the train will provide you a glass cup within an elegant, intricate metal stand with a handle. Piping hot water is always provided. People spread out feasts on the table and snacking seems to be quite consistent. They put everyone on a towel, as I think they view the tables to be dirty.

There's a lot more movement going on than in the train and people maintain a beautiful set of patterns. In America, I find the trains to often be constricting – to get up means you have to bother your neighbour and there's no position to sit in but straight or reclined. Here, I can sit cross-legged, lean against a wall, lay on my side, back, sleep when I like in full comfort, or at a table – all with out leaving my assigned area.

Another thing every, every single person on the train has is slippers. Everyone brings a pair of slippers in a plastic bag and pulls them on as soon as possible after boarding. I think they believe the floor is inherently dirty and they avoid touching it at all costs. I frequently see people manoeuvre their slippers around so that their feet don't have to touch the floor. They will stand on the bunks to avoid contact and do lovely acrobats. They will not touch the ground with their bare or socked feet.  I grabbed a fuzzy pair of flannel slippers for 60 reubels ($2) at an underground store and have felt set so far. There are two frequent styles of slippers. One is the basic pad with a protected toe of fabric. The other are like sandles, thick plastic sandles with a band over the top. Pink, purple, and blue are the most common of colours. My slippers are a light pink.

Each train car is attend to by one human being – I forget what we call them. Mine looked like he was recently beat up and has bruises on his face. Later, when he was checking my ticket, I saw new scabs on his knuckles so I consider it likely. He does a good job at keeping the train clean. He just came by with a Russian broom (they don't have long handles, like in America, and force him to bend down as he sweeps) and then a mop that was made up of a metal pole with a bar at the end. A towel with a hole in it was threaded onto the pole and used to clean everything. The train smells very clean, now.

People change their pants in the middle of the train without a second thought. I do the same, but utilizing a skirt.

There are people that wander the trains, up and down, trying to sell you things – most are religious icons, pictures of Mary and beads of importance. They put the boxes in your area on the table, right in front of you, and then they move further down the train and watch you, hoping you'll consider making a purchase. I don't think they're associated with the train at all and wouldn't be surprised if they did this all day long. Some come prepared with reading material to sell. A woman walks up and down, pulling a rolling cart behind her, saying, “Pashalsta, chiiiips, semechkiiiiiii,” in the most monotone, downtrodden voice I think I've heard.

The bathrooms can get a bit scary – but are typical for train bathrooms. I always pull on my hiking boots when I want to visit them. My slippers would quickly soak through with who-knows-what. There are no paper-towels because they already gave you a towel which is rad. There is a hole in the floor that goes straight to the train tracks so you don't want to drop your small child through there.

I have yet to see any other Americans on a train nor hear English, French, German, Italian, or Spanish spoken between other people.

And that's what I've collected about the train so far.
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