More and more, Russia is reminding me of Romania. In both countries, back-aching manual labor in the fields is the norm, and yet old and young alike seem to spend much of their days quietly resting on benches, watching the world crawl by. They both share vast expanses of mostly unspoiled nature – each have inexplicable mountains of trash scattered throughout.
The unique and wildly colorful buildings which fill their ramshackle towns could easily be mistaken as belonging to the other (by an undiscerning eye anyhow – the styles are quiet different). Perhaps the biggest similarity of all, is the ubiquity of their roadside markets:
Though my Russian is slowly improving, my brain often refuses to cooperate with me when I try to use it. For example: every time I offer "skolka eta stoyit?" (how much is it?) to a market seller, my mind immediately proceeds to flood itself with numbers from six different languages. Invariably, I cannot parse the answer.
What follows is a brief and flailing helplessness, a paralyzing sensation that rushes through me like fire. Starting in my stomach, it rapidly spreads through my entire body, like I've been caught red-handed breaking some very serious and important rule.
Failed attempts at communication in the local language always leave me feeling foolish, like a four year old. But no matter, I just soldier on as humbly as I can. The perfectionist in me hates these encounters, but learning to peacefully relinquish any sense of control in these situations is key to my survival.
Anyway, after the requisite bit of fumbling ensues, a non-verbal solution is always found:
Arriving in Kazan, we immediately see why our St. Petersburg host, Aleksankr, was so enamored with the city. The Kremlin is visible as soon as we cross the bridge leading into town: a shining white fortification with an imposing blue mosque as the centerpiece.
Saving the sightseeing for another day, we bite the bullet and get a hotel. It is far, far more expensive than I'd like, but after six days of wild-camping, I will pay almost anything for a real shower and a dark, air conditioned cave. I console myself with the reality that I can probably get enough work done while we are here to make the stay a break-even affair. For this I am more thankful than words can say.
The check-in procedure is terribly involved. Our concierge disappears into a back room with our passports for at least ten minutes. When she returns, she asks about our flights, is confused for a moment when we explain that we've driven, and finally understands once she examines our migration cards. It requires no less than four signatures and the title of our car to complete the process. Russian bureaucracy is prodigious.
Once we're settled, showered, and clean, we leave to get dinner. On the way, Tara spies this woman yelling at her dogs (or strays?). They are roughhousing in the canal below. Tara loves how her kerchief and plastic bag go together; she likes to imagine the woman intentionally coordinated her accessories.
After wandering around, searching in vain for a grocery store, we settle on a kebab restaurant with a photographic menu of items posted on the wall above the counter. We experience a brief debilitating moment of language-barrier-fright, during which we stand stock still with our mouths open, feeling naked.
I order a chicken kebab – Tara chooses a hamburger, which they don't have, so she gets a tomato-cucumber-onion salad instead. We take a seat, and wait with growling stomachs. A few minutes later she receives a minuscule collection of red and green cubes, three or four bites of salad at best. But no matter, when my kebab comes, the the server brings Tara her own as well. I guess we accidentally ordered two?
When our meal is through, we go for an evening stroll. The city is positively bustling with activity and alight with colorful neon signs for casinos, clubs, and hotels. Drunken bar hoppers stagger from one club to the next, terrible buskers fill the night air with their off-key melodies, and several homeless people beg for change on the street corners.
Tara stops to dig her leftovers out of the backpack I'm wearing, and hands the plastic to an elderly man sitting cross-legged under a lamppost. "Spasiba" he says earnestly, taking the offering appreciatively. Tara can't remember what to say in return (pajalosta), so she awkwardly smiles and sort of nods her head and we continue on.
Outside a club, three women dressed in underwear are gyrating near the street, wearing heels that defy the laws of physics. The lusty spectacle is creating quite a stir. Men in passing cars hang out of their windows, yelling like idiots as they swerve around the road, hooting, hollering and honking in their approval of the simpering trio. You can almost see their eyes pop out of their heads in cartoon-fashion, tongues lolling out like dogs, salivating in Pavlovian fashion. People are so strange.
Back in our chilly hotel room, we curl up in our cozy bed, thankful for clean sheets and air conditioning.