It is a chilly grey morning. Heavy clouds hang overhead, threatening rain. Even so, we pack our camp at a leisurely pace, paying no mind to the potential deluge. Once everything is in order, I direct Tyler through our field of car-high grasses, back to the rocky muddy roads to start our day.
It is a slow and lurching drive, fifty kilometers to Safar and Chalema's farm. We stop often to enjoy the desolate scenery. Outside, a cold wind whips my hair, the only noise breaking the silence, as I troupe out of the car and over the fields, camera in hand. The occasional bird of prey circles, majestically aloft in the air currents overhead, hunting for breakfast.
Bouncing along in the car, I'm glad we're headed towards the warmth of Chalema's kitchen. Hot cups of tea sound much more inviting than the view from my window: a ditch full of discarded steer skulls.
With a laugh, I yell that we should strap one of these to the hood of our car.
Check out those teeth!
W are received at Safar and Chalema's house with smiles and welcomes from their youngest son, Dalien. He is playing dress-up in a military uniform. After a halting hello, he brings us inside, stopping so we can leave our shoes at the door. Then, he leads us through their humble home.
Chalema is waiting in the kitchen. She gives us both a big hug and motions for us to sit down while she tends to several pots of food on the stove. There is something so sweet about her voice – even though we don't speak the same language, we still understand much of what she's saying.
As she hovers over her cooking, she explains that she has been worried about us all night, wondering how we fared in the chilly evening, hoping we had warm blankets. Apparently, we arrived later than expected, and she is relieved that we're now safely under her wing.
As she talks, seemingly oblivious that we don't speak her native language, she putters around, placing dishes of food on the table. There are slices of bread, a bowl of bright red jam, and a dish of tiny round red berries that I've never seen before. They are shockingly tart, reminiscent of a strawberry that's been picked too soon.
There are also hot sausages, and a plastic packet of ketchup to go with. A dish of tomato pasta, a plate of sliced cucumbers, and a bowl of candies and chocolates round out the feast. Eat, eat! she encourages us, and we do as we're told.
Chalema eventually joins us at the table and prepares a small but concentrated batch of tea in a tall, silver pot. Then, she pours shots of the dark red liquid into porcelain bowls. Topping them up, she dilutes the drink slightly with hot water from an electric kettle. Spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk from a large bowl are added, and tea is served. As she hands us each our own, she teaches us the word for it: chai.
Even though there is nothing particularly special about the tea (it tastes like a regular cup of "English Breakfast"), I am deeply thankful for the warm beverage. It is a luxury we enjoy far too infrequently these days. She encourages us to drink while it's hot, and I stifle a giggle because Tyler doesn't really like tea. He does an admirable job, making a small dent in his portion, and then we sneakily switch bowls so I can finish his for him.
Safar joins us in work clothes of green camouflage. We stand up to shake his cold hands (he has been working outside), and he smiles broadly, welcoming us to his home. He's been busy with the birds, and, judging by some impressive miming, welding too.
He scoots up to the table on the bench next to me, and, with a grin, instructs us on how to properly hold the tea bowl. It is not something to grab onto brusquely, as Tyler is doing, nor to wrap chilled fingers around for warmth, as I am. It is a dainty fingering, palm facing upwards, as Hamlet would hold a skull to reflect upon his own mortality.
Seeming pleased at the site of two Americans in his kitchen having a proper tea, he asks for the camera so he can take our picture to send home to our parents. Won't they be pleased, Safar and Chalema seem to say, laughing, when they see you two drinking tea in Siberia!
Safar gets up from the table, and Dalien takes his place while Tyler shows him the buttons to press. This is for you, Mom and Dad, proof of our drinking Siberian tea:
Our conversation is halted when Safar looks out the window and waves to someone outside. As he puts his coat on, clearly in a rush, he touches his chest and says "izvinitia, izvinitia" (sorry, please excuse me). Then, he walks out to meet the stranger. As best we can tell from what Chalema says and mimes, it is the army general from Novosibirsk who wants to buy some pheasants for hunting? It seems to be a big deal.
While Safar is away, Chalema pridefully shows us her family photo album. As she flips through the plastic pages, full of fading pictures, she explains places and faces and names. At this moment, I feel deeply grateful for our chance to make a connection with this woman. Though I can't understand everything she says, it is a joy to listen to her. I find her voice very comforting.
Soon, we learn that she has another, older son, who lives in Novosibirsk. She shows us photos of his going away party, the night before he left with the army to be stationed in Chechnya. With a vivid and heart-wrenching explanation in Russian, brought to life with intense facial expressions and enthusiastic gesturing, we learn that she cried the night before he left. The following morning, she ran alongside his departing van, crying again as she waved goodbye to her eldest son, perhaps forever.
Thankfully, the young man with the serious face, in uniform with his black hair buzzed, is alive and well, now studying in the big city.
After many more photos and stories, Safar returns, joining us at the table. Chalema pours us all another round of tea, encouraging us once more to drink it while its hot, and we sense that it is now our turn to share. Tyler runs to grab the computer, and we set it up on the kitchen table. We show them photos of our families back home, and share some of our favorite shots from the places we've been.
They especially like the pictures of animals, and laugh in recognition at the various dogs, cats, and farm animals we've met during our travels. Chalema takes it upon herself to say each animal name in Russian, once fast and once slowly, so we will be sure to learn it. Meanwhile, Safar asks us questions like, do you live on a farm back home?
After much chatting and yet another round of tea, it is time to say goodbye to this kind Siberian family. We exchange addresses and phone numbers, though I can scarcely make out any of their cyrillic scrawl. Chalema giggles, and mimes that she will call us on her cell phone to say hello. And then she giggles as she seems to explain that we should call her, and say, "Chalema, cook for us! Cook, Chalema, cook!"
Laughing, we all head outside and prepare to say goodbye. We have a hard time of it though, unwilling to part ways just yet. Chalema delays our leaving even further with an enthusiastic desire for us to take pictures. Yesterday, she was shy, not wanting her photo taken, but today she is playfully bossing us around, telling us what to capture next. Maybe she liked the pictures we showed her?
In any case, she runs around, giggling like a little girl, pointing out things to photograph and explaining what they are with funny mimes. Then, she grabs Safar's welding helmet and shows us how its done, before shoving them in his face, encouraging him to light it up so we can take pictures of him at work.
Safar happily obliges:
Next she shuffles us over to a very strange vehicle. I'm not sure what it is, but it has a name and she clearly differentiates it from both the tractor and their sturdy van. Chalema seems to say: Hop up there, Tara, and you take her picture, Tyler! That way you can write home and tell your mama that you drove this Siberian contraption!
Safar lends me a gentlemanly hand as I hoist my way up to the driver's seat and Tyler begins to take pictures. I am delighted when I find Safar goofing around for the photo, giving me a pair of bunny ears. They are the perfect compliment to my dorky motor noises.
A moment later, Tyler captures one of my favorite photos of the whole trip:
Satisfied with the photo session she has orchestrated, Chalema leans in towards us for a heartfelt hug. Then, we part ways, pulling away in our LRC, honking and waving, thankful that our lives have been brightened and enriched by this warm, loving Siberian family.
Back in the car, my emotions are a jumbled mess, vacillating with every bounce in the road. I am both thrilled to have met Safar and Chalema, and intensely sad that we're leaving already. Above all, I am ridiculously jittery, no doubt due to the eight cups of tea I drank over a span of three hours.
We make it through our dirt track detour, and soon after that, we arrive back at the main road. Our trip off the beaten path comes to an end as gravel turns to pavement. There it is, exactly as we left it, a narrow ribbon of semi trucks and asphalt, bypassing the heart of Siberia.
Hours later, it is time to camp. Without trouble, we find another side road, driving our car into the forest, ending in a clearing surrounded by birch trees. Once more, it is time to make our home and prepare dinner. As we perform our tasks, we chat happily about the day.
It is with great enthusiasm that we sort through our photos for the five hundred and eleventh time. The sun is setting, the wind is whipping branches against our tent, and yet another adventure has become a part of our story.