Saturday, April 29, 2006

Successful Shopping

Saturday, April 29, 2006 9:00:35 PM
Well, well. I just had a successful shopping Saturday. I think I understand why Russians will describe a shopping spree as a "successful" shopping excursion. They mean what they say. In the States we take the success of the shopping experience for granted, and complain when it isn't so. But in Russia, goods are still not universally available. And, they have a history of being less available than now. Most of the Russians I've discussed this with seem to regard the Soviet era availability as "so-so", or mediocre, rather than bad. The availability of goods under Glasnost and Perestroika was apparently far worse than previously. Then we have the Russian Federation, whose first years were apparently pretty rocky times for the populace. Things are mostly better now.
Some areas, like Shchuch'ye, still suffer from bad economic times. Others, like Moscow and Chumlyak, seem to be doing quite well. Chelyabinsk has many indicators that it also is doing reasonably well. Unfortunately, I'm not talking formal indicators, but rather seat-of-the-pants intuition kind of indicators: clean store fronts, people selling and doing business, that kind of thing.
So, what happened to give me a successful shopping Saturday? Let me digress slightly: I brought my mountain bike from the US when I returned from home leave last week. It is not a fancy mountain bike. It is rather a minimalist collection of usable old components on a decent mountain frame. No shocks, no disc brakes. Componentry was about two sales levels off the bottom of the tank. It is a good "working" bicycle. Tough and sturdy components that work reasonably well, just not lightning fast.
The bike got trashed on the way over. Not entirely, just some critical parts. It seems to me that someone deliberately set about to do damage to the bicycle on the way over. They broke a spoke, and destroyed the crankset. This was not a small effort. It left me checking out online catalogues for crankset prices. I didn't have the tools to remove this crankset with me, either, so I would need tools. One of the guys suggested a local bike shop by name. I asked a couple of the Russians at work, and it turns out that one of the people I know had some experience with bicycles and the Chelyabinsk bicycle stores.
With his help I felt pretty confident that we could get this fixed in Chelyabinsk. He had checked their online catalog, and they had cranksets equivalent to what I was looking at. And he felt sure they would have the tools to fix it, too.
I took the bus into town Saturday morning. Since the bus let me off closer to another one of the stores on my list of potentials, I stopped there. They weren't my prime target, but they were closer. They had nothing - no cranksets, no repair facilities, nothing. I headed towards my prime target shop, passing my #2 choice on the way, but I was a bit tired and just didn't feel like trying my second choice right then. I went ahead and caught a trolley. The end of the trolley line was just around the corner from where the shop was supposed to be. As I walked along the street looking for my #1 choice shop, I was a little nervous that I might not find it where I had been told it was. But I went a little farther, and my nervousness was relieved - the store existed! I walked in with my bike. Lots of bikes everywhere - a good sign! A clerk came over and I explained what I needed, with a bit of difficulty, until I got out the internet catalogue printout. Bingo, they had what I was looking for. Making a longer story short, they had a crankset, and a bottom bracket, and they had the tools to install them. They let me help, which I like to do, and which was a good thing, since I was the more experienced mechanic. In about an hour, plus a bit, I was on the street, and it cost me less than the crankset would have cost me ordering it online! I was impressed and pleased. So now I had my bike, and it worked again. I rode about town a bit, and ended up heading to the train station to take the train home.
On the way I stopped at a grocery store for some soap and a couple of things. I had brought my cell phones with me this day, thinking I might have a chance to step in one of the kiosks by Revolution Square. They have a lot of phones, and I thought they might have a charger for the Motorola. I passed up that opportunity, tho, as I didn't feel like dealing with my bicycle inside a store. But here I was, with my bike locked outside, at least as safe as being locked up on the streets of NYC. And what did I see next to the grocery, but a phone store. I was not in the store 30 seconds, when a sales clerk offered to help. I said yes, and in sign language indicated a charger for the Motorola. It took her all of 3 minutes to find one. Then the sign language again, this time for the headset for my Nokia. Another bingo. It took me longer to pay for these items than it did for her to find them!
I will admit, I forgot to get my watch battery, but you've got to admit, that's pretty small potatoes. So, A Successful Shopping Trip!

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

April Snow Showers? Blizzard!!

Another lovely spring morning! I awoke to see the air white with snow. Collecting on the ground, the brown soil that has only so recently come unburied is again hidden. An April snow shower! I had expected it yesterday, or at least the weather forecast expected it yesterday. But, yesterday nothing happened but chilly and overcast day. As I walk outside the camp to the morning bus, I am walking through 6 to 8 inches of snow. This is an amazing amount of snow to accumulate, and somehow I don't think it will melt today. It just doesn't feel like a snowfall that will melt away soon. One of the other bus-riders tells me the weather forecast is for the snow to stay until Saturday. That will be a long time for a spring snow shower. The drive to the site is dangerous again, and the driver is extremely cautious. As we approach the office, the guards are shoveling the steps into the building. A beautiful spring morning!

I'm working long hours to get ready before I leave on Friday, which is not fun. But we seem to be making progress, which is good.

It is snowing again - a real blizzard! This is amazing and wonderful weather for an April day, but it may get in my way for my trip home! The weathermen are forecasting it to last through Saturday! NOT good news.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Economics and poverty, again

Observations on Economics and Poverty

I've been here going on a year now, and I have learned a lot about Russia and Russians. So far, My first impressions have been validated. I still see more middle class existence than wide-spread poverty.

However, we do have to set some standards here. What do we call poverty? In a nation where it is cheaper to live than in the US, and cultural norms are different, can we keep the standard the same? Just something like income of $25K per family? I don't think so.

I take a look at how people live in the village nearby. Are they poor? By financial and material standards compared to the U.S., yes. Are they desperately poor? No. They have the basics of life and some left over. They are happy, well-fed, well-clothed, and entertained. Very few lack for these basics. On the other hand, almost none of them have running water, and the outhouse is the norm. But they have decent shoes, and they can afford some clothes they like and a few luxuries from our modern electronic world. In the villages and the countryside I see plenty of babushki and dedushki who, if they were wearing the same clothes in the US, you would think them homeless, but they are not. Their clothing, although mismatched and hodgepodge a collection as they are, are usually relatively clean. These are farm people, more or less. So one would have to compare them to a rural middle class of a time, I would say no more recent than my childhood, to get some idea of whether these people are poor or not. I would have to say many people in the country are in poverty, but not terrible poverty. There are fewer visible people in the city who appear to be in poverty.

Let's go into town, to Chelyabinsk. Do I see any homeless people? Very few. Do I see any really poor people? A few, but not so very many. How do I judge poverty? Look at their coats, are they clean, and in good repair? Or are the mends and patches showing? Are their shoes decent? How about their cleanliness? Have they had adequate dental and medical care? I think yes.

Most of the inhabitants do not own an automobile, but almost all have running water and bathrooms. Their clothes are as neat and tidy as I would expect to see in a middle class town in the US. The coats and shoes are mostly new enough not to have noticeable repairs or age. When I came over here I read many accounts that said Russia was a land of great poverty compared with an elite rich few. The elite rich few still exist, but I continue to see a land with a huge middle class, and very little poverty.

They reuse things far more than we do, but this does not indicate poverty. Their infrastructure is much tattier than ours - sometimes. For instance, the buses and automobiles look like they have a million miles on them, and they are still being patched until they simply can't be patched any more. Also, the patches will take the form of make-do fixups. They look like somebody figured out a way to make it work again. Example, new brackets bolted on to a bus door to hold a handle but they don't even attempt to use the wornout metal where the old brackets were, and the patch is entirely utilitarian, with no concession to any attempt to make it look tidy, much less original. But, I do see some new buses, some new train cars, some new autos, some new road paving. There is plenty of building going on, which is good. The quality of the last couple of waves of apartment buildings is sometimes questionable. These building are now 25 or more years old, and are showing a heavy toll of poor maintenance.

Still, I must remember that this country has only changed from out of the Soviet system for 15 years now. A mere eyeblink in time. I constantly meet reminders that while things may seem stable now, there were some very rough moments in history very recently. In Perestroika, people died. In Glasnost, people died, and it seemed like anarchy reigned. I can't say robbery, theft, and violence were common, because I have no figures, and I wasn't here. But I frequently talk to people who have stories about these times, and their attitude is frequently that it is better now. Much better.

I think most Americans would feel that living as most Russians do would be poverty, but I do not agree. I don't think the lack of material possessions makes their life poorer. The availability of medical care is not as good, and may actually be getting worse for the lowest earners. The same may be true for education. But when I think of places in the world that are truly poor, this just doesn't compare. Life may be difficult here, but there is opportunity. Not as much as I, or most of the Russians I meet would like, but it does exist.

I still get the impression that as recently as five years ago the situation was different, and the poverty was greater. Russia's economy is growing. It seems to me to be so vigorous that it would be hard to suppress, but lately I've seen enough government policy issues, and business ethical issues, that I think the current ruling class in Russia could actually kill, or at least maim, the current economic growth patterns. The government are stifling business and reducing competition, and the CEO frame of mind over here seems to consist largely "get mine, screw you". The business owners need to remember that the cogs are what make the wheel turn.

Days of the White Raven.

Days of the White Raven.

Belaya Varona. White crow, or white raven. In the US, I think this would be an insult, or it would be a challenge from somebody who was in need of making a statement of individualism. The first is obviously bad, and the second is so frequently associated with wanna-bes, that it is also rather bad. I was told I was a white crow, and I should not try to hide it. In this regard, the Russians are like the Mexicans - they will nickname someone with a truthful label, and it is not an insult. A man with a fat belly may be Gordo, or "Gourd" after his shape. And it is not an insult. Here someone can call you a white crow, and it is a label of pride, that one is especially talented, clever, or intelligent. Hell, man, this was such a fit, I felt like I had been waiting for this nickname since I was a kid. It just fits the way I feel, that's a fact. Crows are smart, very smart. Probably the smartest birds in the Northern Hemisphere, that's North America, Europe, and northern Asia. They have a reputation as carrion-eaters sometimes, but this is only a small part of their diet, and it performs a useful function in our world. In folk tales around the world, they have a position much like Coyote - a bit of a trickster, not good, not bad, but some of each, and they are usually smart or clever. In Norse mythology, there were two special ravens who sat with Odin. They would fly around the world, and then report back all the secrets they saw to Odin. For the Kiowa, White Raven was one of the first men, along with Spider, Coyote, and others. White Raven tricked the others, hiding all the buffalo, and when they found him out they scorched him and turned him black.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Vishna - Spring - cycling!!

It has been a considerable time since I have written much. Many reasons for this, and they are not all clear to me. I am certain that bad relationships at work contributed considerably. In my anger and pain there was not much room for joy, and not much to write about. Winter may have contributed somewhat. This was both a wonderful and a difficult winter. I never quite got my adaptation legs under me.

The winter was difficult to adapt to. The climate was a new one in my experience. It snowed a little early - October, but it didn't stay on the ground. The freeze wasn't good and solid until after Thanksgiving, so that was pretty much like the northern US. But, there was no snow! Or, at least, there was so little snow that the most appropriate outdoor activity wasn't skiing or snowmobiling, but off-road bicycling. I was able to walk through any drifts I could find, and there were mostly clear zones with only an inch or two of snow. Riding off-road would have been great.

It wasn't until late December, almost the New Year, when we finally got some real snow. So we had January and February as two months when there was real snow for winter sports. And, in January, we had a two week stretch of very cold weather, with temperatures down to minus 40. Minus 40 is minus forty, on either scale C or F, it doesn't matter. That is on the edge of real cold, dangerous cold. It is certainly still easy enough to deal with, if you are able to dress well, and have a warm fireplace somewhere, but any risk is magnified. Then in March, spring came quickly. By the end of March we were seeing days with the weather above freezing, and the snow and ice were melting. Before April came there was open water on the Miass and in the marshes. The roads were nasty and wet from the end of February through the second week of March. Now they are mostly dry and clear. We have had two spring snow showers, neither of which lasted out the day. The snow was melted or melting before the end of the day, and gone by the end of the next day. The ground is still plenty muddy, but there are already dry areas to walk on in Chelyabinsk, as well as areas of very large puddles! It won't be long before things start turning green. It is still below freezing most nights, but not by much.

So, you see, there wasn't a whole lot of what I'm used to as winter. We had a little over two months of snow time. And, there wasn't very much snow, either. At the worst, when I was walking in the field, I found spots - drifts - that might have been all of three feet deep. But nothing more than that, I think. And for the most part, snow cover was from 6 inches to 2 feet. They get more in the Urals, they tell me, and I believe it from when I passed through, but it wasn't like Michigan or New England. So unless I was ready for it, there wasn't much time for winter sports. I think next year I will have my off-road bike.

That I hadn't been adapting well had been obvious enough, but that winter contributed became quite clear two days ago. It was a beautful afternoon, above freezing, perhaps in the upper 30's Fahrenheit. I took off from work right at five, thinking to ride my bike, maybe. I actually put together enough mental energy and resolution to make that happen. I walked out the front door, wheeling my bike with my shoes in hand. I began putting my shoes on, getting ready to ride. Then, what happened, but Bob popped out the door with his road bike and the same idea as me! Wonder of wonders, not just a day to ride, not just the first ride of the year, but someone to ride with! It was not even in my consciousness that there was another road bike within 50 miles! I know Bob had told me that he rode on the road, and that he had his bike here, but he carries more extra weight than I do, and I had unfairly discounted his ability. So my brain just didn't register his road bike! He has stayed in better shape than I over the winter, and he was stronger than me. But, this was great! It pushed me to work harder!

There is another roadie at the camp. He used to ride on Johnston Island. Brian, I think. Nice guy. I don't think he has his road bike here tho.

So we went out about 5 miles, and I was feeling the strain enough to welcome the thought of returning. I was a little worried, because my legs, lungs, and liver aren't used to this now. Walking is not the same! On the return I did feel the strain, but everything held up well enough. Not much extra, but it was good. Afterwards, I felt wonderful. My legs felt like somebody had released them from prison. I could feel the burn in my thighs, and it was great!

The next morning my soul felt as good, or nearly so, as it feels after good sex or a religious experience! Two spiritually wonderful moments, and here I am comparing riding a bicycle to them! Wuah. I've been saying I loved bicycling for years, because I could keep doing it, and I enjoyed it, but this was even more! Amazing. I really felt freed, released, reprieved, whatever! I had been let out of prison, and I was alive again! Freedom, o freedom! For the first time in months my spirit is clean, vital, and enthusiastic!