It seems that anyone who has traveled far and wide eventually comes to the conclusion that no matter where you roam, people are very much the same. Having heard variations of this idea my entire life, I had some vague inkling of its merit before we left. Now, with more than a year of unbroken travel behind us, I carry with me a wealth of first-hand experiences which confirm this to be true.
People the world over are reliably kind, caring, and good! Somehow, despite this lesson I have learned, I still find myself pleasantly surprised by how much beauty, laughter, and kindness there is in this vast country. Russia certainly does not fit within the confines of whatever preconceived notions were clouding my mind before we arrived.
Yes, there are some shrewd stares to contend with – but, with an open mind, a little fumbling Russian, and an earnest smile to chip away the layers of hardness, some endearingly kind and curious souls emerge. Today was particularly full of these experiences.
This morning, we packed our riverside camp, and went for a walk on the beach. It wasn't exactly your stereotypical, peaceful stroll in the sand:
After sinking in mud up to our calves for a few minutes, we cleaned up and hit the road. The air was remarkably cool, and we made sure to appreciate every single falling degree, elated to escape the oppressive heat looming in the west. Pulling away, we said our daily mantra, "I am thankful for good health, and good weather!"
For breakfast, we stopped at a very small shop and I ran inside to pick up some yogurt and pastries (with mystery filling). Behind the counter was a middle-aged woman with boy-cut cropped hair and a green apron. She quickly warmed up to me as I pointed out the items I wanted, and thus began a long conversation about our trip, where we were from, and what we were doing in Russia. When I told her we were on vyelocipyed, but Russia is HUGE (arms spread out wide), so we switched to moshinu, she broke into a hearty laughing fit.
Then, she calculated the sum of my purchases on a giant, wooden ABACUS! It occupied most of the counter space, the rest of which was piled high with pastries and cookies and packets of gum. While I waited, she deftly flipped the spinning brown beads back and forth, swiftly arriving at my total with a click-clack-click. I left her with our card, and she gently denied my request to take her photo. I'll just have to remember her.
Not long after this, we passed a roadside stand decorated with garlands of cured(?) fish hanging by their lips, blowing in the breeze like socks on a clothesline.
Though neither of us are "fish people," I scrambled out of the car to investigate. Each merchant spoke in rapidfire Russian, extolling to me the merits of their product. When they realized I didn't speak Russian, thus began another long mimey conversation.
Two younger women were particularly friendly and curious, asking me all kinds of questions, like was I married and did I have kids? I learned about their families and congratulated one of them on her new baby. And I caused much laughter when I asked if they caught all the fish. Oh no! Obviously nyet; they just sold them.
And then, I talked to some of the older women about the fish. How does one eat it? Are you just supposed to take a big whopping bite, scales and all, or do you have to take it all apart first? I don't know how fish work.
One lady took my miming to say "I'd like to try it before I buy it" so she casually tore off a fin, leaving a small amount of gummy red flesh on it. I gnawed on it, and it was pretty good, like a very, very salty fish… jerky. Yep, fish jerky. I wasn't sure I'd actually eat it, but it only cost about 90 cents, so I bought it to try, and likely torment Tyler with. The dead creature had a nice heft to it, like a half-full plastic ketchup bottle.
Pleased, I walked back to the car and was met with Tyler's quizzical and bemused, "You bought a fish?" "Yup" I said, and then promptly shoved its dry scaly body under the seat in its plastic bag, head poking out every once in awhile to remind us of its presence. Just what we needed to add to the mess in our LRC.
The rest of the day passed peacefully, driving in and around quiet, quaint little towns and villages, with all those beautiful houses I can't get enough of.
As we drove, we were both struck with a sense of rapidly growing fondness for this place. We really like you, Russia!
There were lots of geese relaxing in the shade:
…and plenty of kids just being kids:
Tyler got a nostalgic kick out of these boys who rode by on a motorcycle twice their size. Helmetless, wearing shorts, feet right on the exhaust pipe… good times!
There were signs we couldn't read:
…and rows and rows of trees artfully arranged by shades of green, leaves shhhhing in the wind, shining bright against a surreal blue sky:
Finally, while taking a turn off the main road, motoring across entire valleys on dirt tracks, we came to one small, lonely village. An elderly couple sat outside on their stoop as a cow crossed the road in front of us to moo at them emphatically, as if they were frightfully late in their milking. Just past the row of houses, the village ended, opening into wide pasture land.
There, we watched as a middle aged woman in a kerchief and tight black capri pants went skipping through the fields – joyfully loping down a hill, chasing her geese with some kind of kind of birch branch bouquet. Her gold-toothed smile, her enormous bosom, her girlish look of pure happiness, the geese squawking and scattering… it was an awesome site that will remain emblazoned our memories forever!
As soon as she was done goose-chasing, we stopped the car, and she came walking right over to us to say hello. She smiled hugely and though we said we didn't speak Russian, she chatted on and on about unknown topics as we stared wide-eyed in total incomprehension. She was very nice, and wished us well with a "na zdarovya!" as we drove off in our LRC. She too, had declined a photo, so I was glad I had already sneaked one from the car window.
From the edge of the little village, our dirt track led us towards a clear, green river. On our side, there was a dry, dusty field, on the opposite bank, the land rose up in a high wooded ridge. It seemed like as good a spot as any to call home for a night, so there is where we settled.
I cooked dinner and while Tyler wandered around, looking for interesting things in our Russian field.
Then, Tyler set up camp and made a fire. With the healthy blaze at hand, he read to me from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi while I made dinner. He'd been inspired by some questions I raised earlier in the day about the huge, snaking Kama river, and downloaded the book! We sat, talking and day dreaming, planning future adventures involving a canoe and the mighty Mississippi.
…and then our feeling of being adventurous and "out there" was shattered by a nearby family who was also camping in the field. As abruptly as flipping a light switch, their car began to shake and rattle to the rhythm of blaring techno. Thankfully it only lasted for a few minutes. Is there anywhere truly off the beaten path? Space maybe?