Tuesday, October 3, 2006


It is past the equinox now. The equinox - one day when all our days are the same length. The time, in Russia, when it was not that the days were shorter, but that the nights would now be getting longer. A tide mark of time.

Here, in southern California, it is still warm during the days. Some days it even still gets into the 80's, more than warm. I like this, because I can ride my bicycle, but I miss the autumn. I would have liked to ridden the back roads during another fall. I would have liked to gotten more use out of my winter clothes - the fox sharka (hat), the down coat, the mittens. Maybe another time.

Here I can ride with lots of other bicyclists, racing bicyclists. There are plenty of them in their 40's and 50's, and probably more than a few older. I'm not the only old Joe riding my road bike here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Back in the US of A.

I have one more post for this journal, after this one. I am going to recap my experience and thoughts. I believe I have a more cohesive view now.

For now I am back, working, in the U.S. California, as a matter of fact. Interesting contrast.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Cycling in Moscow

I rode again today, for the first time in DAYS. It has been rainy, windy, and cold. Not fit for riding without fenders. And on the windy days, it was terrifying to think of riding with that wind. If you were riding into it, you'd be going backward!

It rained this morning, too. But I actually saw the sun about midday. Then it even began to warm up. Positively a miracle! And, on top of that, I even began to think of riding, when my mind has been preoccupied with finding work and determining forward paths from this point. So, when I got home, I was looking at the clouds to see if I could get any idea of whether it was going to rain on me if I rode - or not. There was very black thundercloud coming rapidly over my part of the city, obviously pouring rain on the way. But, it was moving very rapidly, and within a couple tens of minutes it obviously was not going to vent on my section of the city and my roads. And, the skies looked calmer behind it.

When I did get out and ride, it was fine. No rain. But then I had to find new city streets to ride, new paths to get from one point to another. My objective today was to find a path to a set of bicycle and walking paths along the Moscow River that are between 5 and 8 miles from my apartment.

Remember, Russian cities are golden for the numerous back ways available. But on the other hand all the back ways merge into these huge major streets, like little streams and major rivers. You can follow the streams easily, but they often intersect the major river, and then you have to cross this dangerous and huge expanse of hostile territory. Except, if you know a little about the flow and ebb of the large expanse of hostile territory, it is not so hostile. At least not overtly. It is more like a force of nature, that one must recognize and deal with, but it is predictable, at the least.

My explorations today go awry soon enough. The maps do not quite match the reality of the streets. At one intersection, where I plan on going straight, I cannot. Then I cannot find street signs to indicate a name when I need one. And then I run into a section of town that is dominated by one-way streets. Once again I am forced into unwilling, and unwitting detours.

I do not make it to my destination, but I do learn more about the streets I must travel. I begin thinking it may be easier to go ahead and travel the major routes across town. There is more traffic, but these roads must be crossed if not used, and crossing is, if possible, more dangerous than traveling along them.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Russian cleanliness

The Russians are not as obsessed with cleanliness as Americans are. We wash the bejeezuz out of our dishes. They don't. Some of them just rinse their dishes off in water, and consider that clean. Yuch. I've never seen one use really hot water to wash the dishes. And, their sinks and kitchens are small, lending themselves to a quick soap and rinse cycle. Now, I have to recognize that this is almost certainly adequate except in extreme circumstances.

On the other hand, they have more of a culture of bathing than, say, Latin Americans do. They are generally as well bathed as Americans are. The Roman heritage of bathing lives on here. Oops, I say Roman, but this may reflect historical ignorance. Today we know the sauna as an invention of the northern Germanic (Scandinavian) peoples. And, the bathes in Russia are as much a heritage of Scandinavian culture as Roman. You go do the research, and come back and tell the rest of us which is which, eh? Thanks so much. By the way, up until WW2, the Russians were probably better at bathing than Americans in general. Up until WW2, we were still using the bathtub as the primary means of personal cleanliness. Sometime after WW2 the shower became predominant. And that is only for people who had such facilities. Russians, on the other hand, have almost universal access to some way to clean themselves. The villages may be even better in this regard than the cities of the 20th century. The villagers, as far as I can tell, always have access to a banya. At the lightest heat, the banya is the equivalent of a good shower or a bit better. City folk don't have access to banyas, but do have bathrooms with baths. I couldn't say how long they've been on the scene, but the baths have shower heads with hoses, so that one can wash, and rinse, the whole body. This is better than a bath, where one merely washes the body, but soaks in the dirty water.

Their habits are so different from ours when it comes to household cleanliness, tho. They take off their shoes when entering an abode, and wear house shoes. Shoes are dirty, so they don't wear them inside. They probably sweep more often than we do, but they don't mop as much. The stuff on the outside of the house can pretty much go hang, except if you have money, you paint and mend once a year. And you may mow your hay (notice I don't say lawn) once or twice during the summer - or not. However, some folks in the rural communities take very good care of their lawns - except if they do, it is because it is not a lawn they are taking care of, it is a garden. It may be producing food, flowers, or whatever you can get out of gardens.

They keep their clothes just as clean as we do, perhaps a bit cleaner. The washing machines are, in the city, European style. Which really isn't a matter of cleanliness, at all, but rather one of cleaning frequency and style. They usually air-dry their wash. In the country, by the by, the washing machines may be European style, or they may be a single washing machine and another spin-dry machine, or maybe some other combination that I did not experience.

On occasion they smell worse than Americans. But so do Europeans in general. Americans seem to be obsessed with body odor, as much as the Japanese. This wasn't true before WW1, and perhaps not true before WW2, since the Japanese made such an issue of how much we smelled, but it is true now. Again, you go research the history, and give the rest of us the benefit of your sagacious knowledge, please and thank you.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The train past goodbye

I see a beautiful landscape, great stretches of things that bring joy to my eye, and I think to myself that perhaps I should try again to capture this using photography. But I quickly remember how much time it takes to turn any part of what my eye perceives as beautiful into an image that others can perceive as well as I. I think that it is actually faster to write about it than it would be to try and photograph it. And, I seem to achieve more success with writing it.

Right now, my eye was caught by the clouds and the play of the mid-morning light amongst them. Patches of bright light and color amongst the thick woolly clouds, the shadings are striking. We pass a station where people are standing and waiting. One girl is walking rapidly along the platform, looking like she has somewhere to be. A couple is hugging, a young man and woman, not youths, but somewhere in the prime of young adulthood. She leans into the man and raises a foot behind her, standing on one leg now, as they embrace.

Another time, we are passing a small town, and the portion by the tracks has been an apple orchard, now looking unkept, and somewhat unruly. But my mouth literally waters at the sight of all the apples. The trees are full of them, green apples or red apples still partly greenish. It is a beautiful vision, and my hunger arises as I see it, my mouth anticipating the taste.

Contract up, goodbye, end of Journal?

Thursday, July 27, 2006
And, now, I must say goodbye. It is sad for me. My contract has not been renewed, and I am leaving. As I leave, da spadanya rises to my throat, wanting to be spoken. Da spadanya, Chumlyak, da spadanya Shumika that I just met and wanted to know better, da spadanya Shchuch'ye, da spadanya fields and forests of the Siberian side of the Urals. I do get to say da spadanya to the driver, and I ask him to pass this to the other drivers, as well. I don't think I said da spadanya to Chelyabinsk. I have no love for that place. This is not a happy time, but leaving the camp is a bit like a release. We often say that things will always eventually turn out for the better. I hope that this is so. When I post this to the blog, I think this will be an end to the Russian Journal, because it is certainly an end. I'm not sure of what, but I know that it is. I may start a new blog, and post more Russian experiences there, or I may not. I may not stay in Russia at all. At this time, we just don't know.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Wildflowers, version 2.

July 5
Wildflowers, there are clouds of them in yellow, purple, and white. Two weeks ago, even last week, I was wondering why there were so few of them out here. There are huge stretches of fields and woods, it would seem that there should be wildflowers aplenty. And there were very few. But now, oh now, we have hazy clouds of color floating over the green fields.
There is a sweet light lavender~pink, in spires, with long green leaves, looking every bit lilke western fireweed. Another set of spired blooms, this time a proper purple. The yellow clouds, perhaps a legume, give me a light and sweet fragrance. I see some purple clover, some white, and a few daisies as well.

July 25
The wildflowers have even grown more numerous. Now the daisies form big swatches to paint more white on the landscapes. The purples have changed, some have faded away a little, replaced by others. There is a blue flower, too, that I think may be chicory. It certainly looks to me like chicory, but unfortunately, this is not a plant I know very well. Now the thistles add intense droplets in deep crimson and purple shades. The grasses are maturing, and they bring silver highlights to the palette of color. The fields of grain are also coming into fruition. The visual texture is rich, and beautiful.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Conversations with Nadia

I continue to ride my bikes often. Sometimes I ride my road bike to work, sometimes I ride my off-road bike to Sovietskaya. I plan on playing with the soccer players on occasion. This is good.
The weather has been a tremendous adventure. It was hot, then it rained, and it was still hot, and it rained again, and it rained again, and it rained again, and . . . now it is cool. Almost cold! Only 11'!
Emily, the boss translator, and I rode to Sovietskoye this evening to talk to Nadia. Nadia, if you will remember, is the neighbor lady whom I have volunteered to do work for. It rather mystifies Nadia that I will work for her, I think, and I think she is a bit uncomfortable with me working for her for free. She tells us she is not an "exploiter" to use my labor as a slave. I was so glad I finally got Emily to go to Sovietskoye with me. We talked with Nadia for a nearly two hours, and we had a marvelous time. There were many, many conversations we had had that we reviewed and updated, now that we had a way to know the other understood. We completed so many conversations, and opened new ones where we were curious. This is the first chance we have had to share the more complicated communication we are used to, and we all enjoy this.
Nadia jokes that she talks to me in German. I tell Emily of when Nadia was talking to me in Tartar, French, and Armenian. Nadia laughs, and says yes, she counted from 1 to 3 in Tartar for me. We talk of her farming. She tells us she tried to put raw manure on her gooseberries the first year and they died. I replied that yes, raw manure would burn them. I told Emily how Nadia had told me she now lets the manure and straw ripen for a year or three. And Nadia illuminates us on some details of how she now does this, but it turns out I had understood her correctly.
She is industrious and hard-working, and loves to farm a bit, I think. She actually bought the house and land she is in on purpose. She was living in Chelyabinsk, I think, and she wanted something for her old age. She is exceptionally strong, and almost never ceases to work as far as I can see. Oh, she takes many breaks, but soon enough she is being productive again.
On her little plot of land she has squash, pumpkins, onions, garlic, gooseberries, rasberries, strawberries, blackberries and more. Flowers for instance. She had wonderful tulips, and soon she will have other flowers. She has given me and my friends most of her tulip crop, and that made me a lot of points with the ladies at work! Later in the year I know I will be taking as much of her berry crop as she will spare.
Nadia says at one point that if I leave in August, she will not have time to make me the mittens and socks she has promised. Later she tells me that when I leave she wants to buy my bicycle. I tell her of course I will sell it to her.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The retirement home

It rains again today, thundershowers. They are plains thundershowers, with the clouds forming, and visible, miles and miles away. The lightning occasionally startles the sky, and thunder is heard. You can see the rain then. It is under the clouds, a grey living veil. Slowly it creeps towards us, a living thing, and slow, so slow. But when it gets near, the wind blows gale force, a priarie hurricane!

I am riding my bike in front of it, and it brings dust from the road a half mile away now. The wind is so strong I feel as though I could fly without pedaling! Soon, soon, the rain will follow. If I were in the American plains, the rain would be already here, but on these plains, the distance between the wind and the rain seems to be stretched a bit. It finally comes down, a nice little wetting. The air cools slightly. The mosquitoes seem to multiply by magic. Now the heat hangs heavily, and the air is humid, although not yet the turgid humidity of the American south. Again it rains, bringing refreshing coolness for a spell, and then that cloud passes as the day passes. It is a little later, a little cooler, but it is still hot, and unpleasantly so.
I sit outside and eat dinner while I drink a beer. Some fellow residents are there, and we joke, but there is a tension. They are tired of the confinements of the camp. One likens it to a retirement home, telling jokes about old men, and his jokes ring true. We swat mosquitoes and they bet on what color of car will pass on the street next. It doesn't take long for them to tire of this amusement they have dreamed up, and they move inside, to the bar, where there is a larger variety of our expat community to share the jokes and stilted communing.
I swat mosquitoes for a few more minutes, alone, and then head indoors myself.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

City pollution

Driving into Chelyabinsk

The trees are blooming as we go into the city. My fellow riders comment on the beauty of them. Indeed, they are beautiful, but I had seen the air over the city long before the trees came into view, and that view overrode any enjoyment I might have had of the beauty of the trees. The dirty air poured visibly from the smokestacks, hanging over the town, a horrid pall of pollution.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Inside a Russian country house

Inside a Russian country house:
I've wondered, now I know. No running water. The stove is also the heat. The exterior of this house is a brick veneer over a log structure. That puts in one step up in quality. Almost all the houses are of log construction, only the very newest are different. Many are still exposed logs with the wonderful detail work on and around the shutters and eaves. You can tell how well the family is doing by observing the condition of the exterior.

The porch acts as an extra layer of insulation, I'm sure. It is enclosed. Inside it is small. This house is shared by two families - it is quite simply a duplex. Common? Don't have the faintest. The bathroom is an outhouse. It is obvious why the slit trench type of bathroom remains common. If you've got an outhouse, it is much cleaner than a stool-type arrangement. The shower equivalent is the banya. This is a small sauna-type construction, in an exterior building. Unpainted wood exterior, but the interior is nicely done plain wood. The heat is far from the extreme heat I am used to, but I guess that is family preference. I think that maybe most Russians actually like their banyas only very warm, not hot. It is an excellent bathing opportunity. Much use of water to cleanse inside the banya. There are two water containers - one attached to the stove, which is hot of course. And, another sitting away from the stove for cold. Grab a bucket, make your water the temp you like, and start watering down with a dipper. Soap up, rinse, repeat. Not a steam bath at all. Very cleansing. So is this family poor? They have a big box of toys for the little boy, a nice tv, VCR and DVD. No stereo here, but they have 3 cell phones along with a regular phone. The regular phone is a real cheap model, but gets used the least also. They have a fridge, a nice one. But the washing machine is a combo of two somewhat older machines, designed to work without running water. They actually, to my surprise, have a wash basin. At the top, there is a small water bucket attached that you tap underneath to release a little water. The basin has a drain, and a compartment underneath with a bucket for waste water. Made of tin or painted light steel, it looks like something I'd see in a home catalog from the late 1800's in the US. Very practical. I think one must remember how innovatively that time made practical use of technology in many simple ways. Today we call it intermediate technology, since it bridges the gap between non-industrialized technology and fully industrialized technology.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Evening sashlik

Evening sashlik:Two of us go to Chumlyak for sashlik for dinner for a change. This is a day I rode to work, as the morning was beautiful. In the late afternoon some thundershowers came up. I delayed riding home, hoping to miss the rain, but it didn't stop so quickly. I went ahead and rode, getting wet. I had expected it to be cold. Standing outside in the damp of the light rain, and with the wind, it felt cold. As I rode I quickly found it was not. I suffered from cold not at all. The heat I generated was quite sufficient, and the rain helped to keep me cool. As I reached the camp, the rain was slowing to a stop. Within another quarter of an hour, the sun began to appear from behind the clouds. We decided to go to the village to eat. Walking out the evening was beautiful. The sun was shining brightly and dramatically from between banks of black clouds. A massive and brilliant rainbow glowed for a time, eventually fading as the sun moved. Another rainbow appeared, farther away, fainter, fading more quickly. The air smells clean, with the bright and light odor of the north woods.
In town, one could feel that they were in a Mediterranean village. The flowering trees are blooming, and the town is actually beautiful. From outside the cafe one can see across a field to the woods, and it looks clean. Not the usual condition for the village cafe! From inside I can see the roofs of the adjacent houses. Birds are flying overhead through a brilliantly colorful sky full of clouds and blue sky both. It is the clarity of the air, and the fresh cleanliness of everything else, making the colors so fresh and glowing that one thinks of photographs of romantically picturesque Italian villages.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Horses, poverty, and cuckoo clocks

Saturday morning I sat in my room and read a book. And played some computer games. And, I watched a herd of horses being herded by a cowboy in real life. Right in front of our camp. It was one of the most colorful scenes I've witnessed since I've been here. Last fall, a man was herding cows on horseback, but this was something even more special. We've seen the horses out here before, grazing in the fields. There are no fences. None. The horses, the cattle, the goats, roam at the will of themselves and their keepers. Since their keepers are nowhere to be seen, it is mostly where ever the animals choose.

This herd was bigger than most we see grazing in the fields, so it may have been a grouping made up of the smaller grazing herds we see. "Davai, davai!" the horseman yelled. And some other things I didn't understand, and guessing from his tone of voice, it was probably just as well I didn't. They weren't behaving very cooperatively.

Nor were they particularly rambunctious. I can't imagine a herd of horse in the U.S. acting this calmly, but these guys are like they are on Valium. Calm is the keyword. A mare and her colt were in the roadway as a dumptruck barrelle along toward them. The truck had to stop before they decided to hustle a little and vacate the road. Another group of the horses were being uncooperative, and heading down a side road. I think they were going in the wrong direction.

I haven't seen anything this colorful since staying in the back-country in Mexico. But, speaking of third-worldness, there is another topic: poverty and rural life here. I've had a closer look now.

I'm doing volunteer help for one of my neighbors in Sovietskaya, the closest village. I chop her wood, she teaches me Russian words. It is actually quite fun. I guarantee you this, though: she is running a small farm, and she is poor. She only has a few goats and a couple of chickens to go with a garden, but it is a small farm. Lots of goat manure, that kind of stuff. But, this woman, and many of her neighbors, are living in real poverty. They may have enough to eat, but it is hard to come by. The haven't much to spend on clothing, and very little is new. When she needed a new axe handle, she made it from a birch log. With hand tools. The only people who've done that in the U.S. in the last fifty years have done it because they wanted to, not because they had to.

A couple of kids from the neighborhood rode their bicycles up while I was splitting wood. The saddles were pretty much trash. The cover material from one was gone entirely, exposing a felt padding interior. The other's cover was slipping off the metal frame. But, the chains were clean and oiled. These bikes probably could have been retired a generation ago, but they are still being serviced, and they are still useful. The kids were certainly in "grow-into" clothes purchased too large with the knowledge that they would grow into them. When I was a child, we had some "grow-intos", but we were the exceptions, not the rule, already. These people remind me of poor rural farm people of the fifties and sixties in the U.S. I'm sure that they probably more closely resemble even earlier times, but who knows. I don't.

I've said that there are more middle class over here than most Americans would think, and I do see that. The standards of living are much lower, and much different. Public transportation doesn't reach out here very well. These villages really do more resemble third world countries than anything else. I'd guess that the biggest difference is that there is an infrastructure. There is some electrification, and a public water supply. There are roads, even if they are dirt. There is a phone service, and it is more reliable than the ones I saw in Latin America, I think. It is a little better than that, but maybe not much. I am quite sure that education is still mandatory and universal - not something you'd find in a third-world country.

Another new thing has happened, also. The birds are singing. Remember I said that I didn't hear that many birds here? I hear lots more now. Must be because it's spring. And I've heard several birds I've never heard before. Including one that we all know well, and most of us have probably heard - as a clock. The cuckoo. At first I thought someone had a cuckoo clock, just like I have a wall clock that bongs. Early in the morning, when you can hear a lot, I would hear a cuckoo a few times. I asked myself if this could be a real cuckoo, and thought not. It was too close to the hour, and the calls were just a few, so it was probably just someone who'd gotten a cuckoo clock. I't taken to listening for it, but I couldn't hear anything to prove it one way or the other. Until this morning. While riding to work, and passing a wood, at least a mile from the nearest house, office or building of any sort, I heard the "cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo . . ." And, it went on for a couple of minutes, way past any clock marking the hour. Most amazing! They sound like a cuckoo clock! Or vice versa!

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Village life, another peek

Well, I'm getting a different outlook on the Russian village today. Got myself in a bit of a wicket here. Went to catch the electrichki, and the ticket counter said to get out to the platform, one was leaving for Kurgan in 3 minutes. So, I rushed out to the platforms, and had to take a little bit of a gamble, as there were 4 platforms with electrichki's.
I picked one and asked a passerby. She replied by pointing out one that went to Kaissan. Now, I'm used to going into Kaissan and changing trains now, so I figured I couldn't lose. I also figured that had to be the train the ticket office was referring to. They don't have two trains leaving at the same time.

That may be where I went wrong. This electrichki was definitely going somewhere, and soon. I could tell this, 'coz there were people getting on, and it had quite a few on board. But it didn't leave in 3 minutes. So I asked a neighbor about it, and figured out that it was due out in about 10 or 15 minutes. Close, but not quite 3 minutes, and not quite Kurgan. It did go to Kaissan though.

In Kaissan, there was no train to change to. Oops. And, no one else was waiting for a train to change to. Oops, again. I think I'm going to sit here a while. I ask a station person, she tells me it will be 180 minutes till the next train to Shchuch'ye! Three hours! Aagh! I think I must have boarded the wrong train. There must have been an express and a local leaving close together.

I hike in to town to find a magazine to get water, beer, and something to eat. Now I'm getting a first hand view of life in a larger village out here.
The roads are all dirt. The toilets are outhouses. The air is clean, though, and it is quiet. The sounds I hear are dogs barking, the occasional motor vehicle, children playing, neighbors talking, birds singing. People are riding bicycles for transportation.
It is a bit grimmer than I have felt before. I've found that refrigeration is rare. The magazines generally don't have or don't use refrigerators out here. They do have and do use freezers.
So, I suppose I have to stick by my previous sentiment that life out here is not so bad as most Americans would think. Most Americans today would choke over not having running water, heated water, etc. But the folks out here are generally well fed, well clothed, and more or less satisfied with their lives. They are clean, and not running around half-clothed and dirty. Generally, anyway.
And, it does amaze me a bit that the Russians, Soviets or otherwise, never worked harder to pave the streets and bring a little more of the industrialized comforts of life to these places. Russia may be a first-world economy, but it is hard to tell from these villages. From information I can get, I think these small towns and villages were better off during Soviet times. Then they had running factories and schools were open. Now schools have closed, businesses have closed, etc. Today, the fact that the businesses are closed tells me that it is obvious that the businesses could not have been competitive in an open market. But they did provide employment to the locals.

When the train to Shchuch'ye finally comes, it is dark. I get to Shchuch'ye about 11 PM. I think it was the last train, but who knows. I'm tired, and glad I made it.

Football! [SOCCER!!]

Soccer today! Chelyabinsk vs The World! Big Game! Big Show!

O man, was this ever a gas. Sometimes I wish I had my proper legs so I could do things like play soccer. Get this, I think I am the oldest guy on our team. Is that not a gas? It makes me proud to even have gotten out there and played! And I did play today, too! I let one goal in but got a couple of good blocks, as well. One particular shot whanged a good one off my leg. Sure to be black and blue tomorrow! But I was in the right place, right time.

We lost, 5-2, but we played damn well, and I think if the rest of my team plays some more, we could win one! There was some good playing out there today! Now, THIS was FUN! We had, hmm, dunno, 30 or so folks from the rest of the project out there spectating. A bunch of the female employees were doing the cheer squad thing. Good time, good time.

Friday, May 5, 2006

Grass fires

I ride in to work this morning. It is about a half hour after sunrise. The distance makes for a very nice commute - 5 miles. The air is cool, nippy. A mild wind from the north makes the ride seem sluggish. The coolness of the ground keeps the haze low to the ground this early.
There is a lot of haze, smoke actually, from the many grass fires.

There have been multiple grass fires for the last couple of weeks. There are so many that some of us have assumed they must be intentional, and others of us have told us they are. I still do not know for sure that they are. I do know they are not controlled in any sense that we would expect in the U.S. There is next to zero chance that they will get out of control, but no one is watching them. The moisture in the ground, the way the woods are separated by fields, lend themselves to a natural control environment for the fires.

There are so many of them, though, that they must be intentional. I might guess they are for insect control, but perhaps they serve some other function.

Monday, May 1, 2006


Monday, May 01, 2006 7:54:17 PM
Now we get Part 2 of the story that started last Saturday, after the successful shopping trip ended. I took the train back to Shchuch'ye from Chelyabinsk. It was a fine train ride, but very crowded. I've never seen it so crowded, and it stayed crowded all the way to Shchuch'ye. When I got to Shchuch'ye I was about the last one to the platform, because of the bike. Most of the taxis had fares already. One was left, but he quoted me a number that I could not interpret. While I was trying to figure it out, he wandered off, so I guessed he wasn't really interested in a fare. But about the same time I also noticed that there were mashrutka taxis in the parking lot, and one of them had a sign saying "Shchuch'ye - Chumlyak"! I headed over to it, and did my best Russian "Eta vos mozhnu?" - Is this permissable? and pointed to the bike. Nobody said beans, so I popped the front wheel off, and stuffed the bike in with a bus load of people. It only barely fit, as this bus was full! To my dismay, before we got out of town, the driver even picked up 3 more people! One man sat in the aisle, a lady and the young child with her stood in the entryway. Not exactly a safety advert, but we weren't going far.
After I had gotten in, though, a lady in the back started speaking to me. This is a bit unusual for Russians, but she seemed pretty friendly. She said something about "Soviet" something something. I caught almost none of this, but something tickled my memory. If she said "Sovietskaya", maybe she was from Chumlyak, and had heard of my wanderings around - or maybe she even had heard of my going to Sovietskaya that one time! About 5 minutes passed, and my memory clicked. Maybe she was the lady from Sovietskaya who showed me where the magazine was!
At Planovy almost half the people got out. Then, I said to her: "Is your house in Sovietskaya?" "Da". Ok, then, "Is your name Nina?" "Nyet, Nadia". Oh, I was close! I remembered who she was though! We attempted to pass a couple of sentences, without much success. When we got to Chumlyak, everybody got out, and I walked through town with Nadia. We tried to talk a little, without much luck. We stopped at the new magazine, and the ladies there were glad to see me back again. We went on through town a bit, and during our conversation for some reason I showed her my mittens, which had developed holes in the thumbs. She rattled on about something, but I got the sense that she was talking about fixing the mittens, and offering to do so. I took her up on the offer, and told her I would come by the following day.
The following day, I didn't feel much like doing anything, but I finally marshalled enough energy to get on my bike and move. I went down the hill to the field between the camp and Sovietskaya. And, at the bottom I notice that my rear tire was about half pressure. "Great," I thought "no way to fix a flat here". I headed back to the camp, and called it a day. I did fix the flat, which was from a sliver of glass through the tire. But I had no energy for anything else useful.

Today, I went in to work for about 5 or 6 hours. Afterwards I felt enough energy to get myself on the bike, down the hill, and over the field to Sovietskaya. I got there, and the first house I came to had what looked like an older man out doing gardening. But it turned out to be Nadia! Her flock of goats was grazing about, enjoying the new spring grass. She has some chickens, a couple of dogs, and a couple of cats. She took me into the courtyard of her house. There was a narrow path through, flanked by stacked cordwood, assorted tools and other stuff. We tried to talk, and I can make sense of about one word in ten of what she is trying to say. I brought a small box of teabags, to be a good guest. She got out a large jug of cherries and cherry juice she had canned last fall, and poured me a cup of juice. Delicious.

She has wood that needs splitting. I offered to, and then did, split one log for her today, and I told her I would come back this weekend to split wood for a while. She got out a little bicycle, and rode it back across the field with me as I headed home.


The weather today is absolutely beautiful. We are now into the "Long Days" part of the year. The sun is up early, and down late. I love it. The temp is still very cool and unseasonably so. The wind has been very strong, and coldly so. The sky has been partly cloudy or broken clouds, but yesterday and today, the sun has come out and warmed things. It has felt great! The air is fairly calm today, without much wind. The sun came out this morning, and felt deliciously warm.

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!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Chu chut kholodna!, Or, A Little Cold

I go walking tonight. It has finally gotten truly cold - minus 25 or 30 centigrade, which is about -15 to -22 F. Yahoo weather is saying that it is currently -35 in Kurgan, and -37 Chelyabinsk. This is about -30 to -36. At -40 the scales cross each other. Anyway, I put on almost all my winter clothes, and walked to Chumlyak. I was wearing my wool cycling tights for long johns. They work great still.

It wasn't bad at all. I had to unzip my coat on the way back to vent because I was overheating. I forgot to bring my scarf, and so my cheeks and nose were exposed, and they got cold, but no damage was done. It is getting close to temperatures where exposed skin can be in danger of frostbite just from exposure. If it had been windy, that would have been a very real possibility. So there ya go, a down winter coat, nice and thick, a very nice fox hat in the Russian style, with earflaps, woolen mittens with Thinsulate, woolen tights under regular chinos, and a wool sweater over a t-shirt. Plenty warm. I did have chopper mitten shells for the woolen mitts, too. Elkhide these are, I couldn't get buckskin. I had to take off the choppers on the way back, and unzip the coat to vent and stay cool enough not to sweat.

When I got to the store, my glasses frosted. They usually fog on coming in, but tonight they just froze right up! The stars were out and quite pretty, but the clouds are coming up. It is supposed to snow a little tonight.