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.