Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris and....Elista (maybe JCVD as well)

I wouldn't have guessed before I showed up here, especially since the city and region are predominantly Buddhist, but Elista is apparently also a Mecca for action stars.  And I don't mean just any action stars, I mean two of THE BEST action stars ever: Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris.

I mean WHOA!!!!! Not only did Steven Seagal come (he is a practicing Buddhist so I guess it makes sense...more or less) but so came the one and only CHUCK NORRIS!  Here! In Elista! The awesomeness of this city has increased 10-fold since I learned of this.  Kalmyk people only need JCVD to round out the top three greatest action stars of all time to visit their city (if you don't know who JCVD is, then you're obviously not a fan of action flicks....or awesomeness).

While neither Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris were in "The Expendables", instead of making that movie, they probably should have simply flown to Elista and just walked around with a camera.  I mean the only place you're likely to find a greater concentration of pure, adrenaline-filled action is that hideaway temple where the ninjas train in "Ninja Assasin".

Here, if you don't believe me look!

That's Steven Seagall playing chess with the President of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.  I don't know who won, but if Kirsan Ilyumzhinov knew what was good for him, he let Steven Seagal win and saved himself a roundhouse to the face.  

And if you don't believe me that Chuck Norris was here, then here is your proof of that as well.


And for those of you who don't know how absolutely amazing Chuck Norris is, think about some of his incredible feats:
  • Chuck Norris has stood at the bottom of a bottomless pit.
  • Chuck Norris has counted to infinity....twice.
  • Chuck Norris can eat four 30-lb bowling balls without chewing.
  • Chuck Norris can win a game of Connect-Four in only three moves.
  • Chuck Norris was once bitten by a rattlesnake.....after three days of pain and agony........the rattlesnake died.
Now I mentioned that JCVD is the only one of the top three action stars to never have publicly visited the city, but I'm sure that he is either: a) here right now, in disguise b) wiped out anyone here with knowledge that he ever WAS here.  So you can, in good faith Dear Readers, know that the three greatest action stars of all time have been to Elista.

I know for a fact that Mike 'Kratos' would like this place and be honored to walk on such holy ground.  So, Dear Readers, you should think twice before ever bad mouthing Russia because secretly Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal (and probably JCVD) call it a home-away-from-home.  And after reading through just a FEW of Chuck's feats, I wouldn't mess with him.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Elista's American Idol - Межрегиональный Фестиваль-Конкурс

This past weekend was full of events.  On Friday night, I bought a ticket to a concert and was invited to watch, what I assumed was going to be a series of dances, songs, perhaps poetry, etc about Kalmykia, in Kalmyk, etc in honor of the Day of the City, which was happening the next day.  What instead happened was, in a way, much more enjoyable, at least from a pure entertainment point of view.

This concert turned out to be the "American Idol" of Southern Russia.  It was the "Inter-regional Festival-Competition" and there were 13 contestants from all over.  There were contestants from Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Volgograd Region, Kalmykia, Stavropolskii Region and a few others I can't remember.  Anyways, each person sang two songs and as far as I could tell, one was a traditional song (either Russian or from their region) and the next was a song of their choice.

Some the songs were slightly more than ridiculous, as was part of the contest in general.  Every so often, from one back corner of the stage a smoke machine would go off making it look more like there was a small, constant fire in the back that couldn't be put out rather than the mesmerizing effect I'm sure they were going for.  Some of the contestants were hilarious as well, particularly this one group of three women and a guy who was very ABBA-esque.





This guy was full of emotion and I don't really think he could sing that well.  His choice of Ricky Martin's "Mama Maria" may not have been the best Ricky Martin choice he could have made, but then again there's the fact he chose to sing a Ricky Martin song in the first place.


Another guy was also somewhat ridiculous, but actually my favorite contestant.  His name was Ruslan (Руслан)  He had a good voice and for his optional song he decided to sing Sinatra's "My Way", a great choice.  Check him out.




Finally, there was a local Kalmyk girl who ended up winning the contest the next day (I'll explain more in a bit).  She had a good voice (her optional song was Beyonce's "Halo" - haha) and this song is in the Kalmyk Language.  It was sort of a pop song, but people seemed to know it and sing along.  The guy on the left is playing the guitar for the song and the guy on the right is beat boxing and he did it quite nicely.  Check out this video!



As I said, this last girl ended up winning the next day.  This concert, it seemed, was just a warm up.  All the contestants performed the same songs the next night at the Day of the City Concert and it was there they were awarded their prizes and places.

So Dear Readers, while I may not be a Simon Cowell fan and I most certainly cannot stand Ryan Seacrest, I rather enjoyed this competition and found it extremely entertaining!

*Unfortunately, my internet here is too slow to upload videos to the internet, whether to my blog or elsewhere.  I'll keep trying, but in the meantime I apologize for not having video.*

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Day of Roses

Today as I walked to the university, the whole square and road in front of the university was blocked and surrounded by police officers (the square in the city, known as the Pagoda, is the main square in the city.

I had no idea why and when I asked a few people in the teacher's lounge, they were also uncertain so I continued on with my day as normal though I had a bit of worry in the back of my mind.  Saturday, during the Day of the City, one of my Russian students/friends was supposed to meet up with me and we were going to check out the city and see what was happening.  Yet instead of hanging out in the city, my friend messaged me, telling me it was probably safer if we didn't do any walking around and just stayed home.  He had come to school the previous day a little worse for the wear so I assumed the same had happened on Friday night and he simply wasn't feeling up to moving much.  So I ended up meeting up with a few other teachers later on in the day, watching the parade and the concert and thinking nothing of it.

However, come Monday my friend tells me the reason he didn't want to walk around.  He had heard a coffin full of roses (with a note saying the number of roses represented the number of people that were going to be killed on that day) had been placed at a prominent location in the city (he didn't know where, it was all hearsay and even he, more or less, didn't believe the rumor of the coffin was true).  So to be on the safe side, rumors or not, my friend decided it best for him and the foreigner to stay home.

Anyways, as I said, there were lots of police today in the square and while I didn't worry much, I didn't think much of it either and went about my day as normal.  I ended up leaving the university at around 7 and when I left the police were gone, but there was a trail of red flowers (some roses) down the middle of the road in front of the university and this, to be honest, spooked me a little.  I had no idea what it meant.



Finally, I asked one of my students through vkontakte (Russia's version of facebook) and learned that in 2004 there had been a mass protest against Kalmykia's current president: Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (currently serving his 4th term and has said he will not return for a 5th).  Let me give you, Dear Readers, a little background information on Mr. Ilyumzhinov, courtesy of Wikipedia.  Like many after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kirsan was president of the SAN Corporation (researched this, but can't seem to find much info on what it is) and made quite a bit of money since, according to Wikipedia, he has a private jet, 6 Rolls-Royces and two personal limousines, not too shabby!  He has been running Kalmykia since 1993 and is responsible for Elista being the chess capital of the world (he IS the president of the World Chess Federation after all) as well as the construction of it's gorgeous temple, which has prompted two visits from the Dalai Lama.  He, apparently, also claims to have been abducted by aliens. He has currently built Elista in the city it is today with its Chess city and amazing Buddhist temples and is quite popular among the locals.

Anyways, regardless of what he is or isn't, if you're in power anywhere, it's inevitable that some people aren't going to like you.  As a result of this, in 2004 there was a small demonstration with anywhere from 700 to "thousands" of people in front of the university, asking for Ilyumzhinov's resignation.  What happened next is a little hazy.  I researched as best I could, but couldn't find much information.  There were a few different scenarios described and everything from many people were brutally beat by police, that nothing much happened and one article that seemed to say that just a few people were arrested and it wasn't a big deal.  What does seem to be clear in most of the articles I read, however, is that one person at the protest was killed and the flowers on the ground were in memoriam of this person and the events that happened here in 2004.  

Anyways, Dear Readers, I find it all very interesting and am saddened that such things happen, whether here in Russia or Myanmar or in Darfur, people dying unnecessarily is always a hard thing to grasp.






*Update, this was written on September 21, but the following day (22/09/10) there was an actual protest against President Ilyumzhinov, which my Russian colleagues found pointless since he is leaving office in a month anyhow.  It wasn't much of a protest either; it looked like maybe 15-20 people.*




Monday, September 20, 2010

From A Western World

This is a post to counteract my pseudo-rants about certain things here in Russia, certain ways of life because I feel I've been too harsh on certain things here, even if it is just to myself.  I want to discuss differences in beliefs and ways of living in places we are uncertain about, scared of and know nothing about, how us Westerners have grown a little too comfortable.  So even though this blog has generally advice for everyone, it's directed at me and my struggles here in Russia.

The USA, Great Britain, Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia and few others.  These are what are considered the "developed countries" of the world, the "best of the best".  I am from these, I am of these and I am, perhaps most importantly, comfortable in these.  In these places I don't worry about going to the doctor.  In these places I don't worry about drinking tap water.  In these places I am home.  But now I am not in these places.  In this place I DO wonder what happens if I have a serious emergency? In this place I DON'T drink the tap water.  In this place I am NOT home.

This is not my first time abroad and certainly not my first time spending a considerable amount time in Russia, but this is different.  I'm not a big city where everything I need is right there.  Where things always work and where, should I completely break down, go rent a night in a hotel and have a night of semi-luxury.  I am instead, in Elista, a small city in Southern Russia.  Here water shuts off randomly, the majority of the people use squatty pottys and many of the everyday things I'm used being able to buy at Safeway, they simply don't have.

As I said, I'm writing to hopefully correct any false impressions I've given to people about how I feel about Elista, either through my blogs or through personal conversation.  There's a great many things I'm not used to here and things I'm having trouble adjusting to (e.g. squatty pottys, little places to buy food, not like my Safeways and QFCs, my inability to find the simplest of items, due both to them generally being difficult to find and the language barrier, and the language barrier in general).  These are just some examples of what is a struggle here for me and things I don't fully understand.

For as a Westerner, I can't fathom how people live without certain amenities when they are so readily available.  I hate to use this example again, but I will.  Take the squatty pottys, Turkish toilets, whatever you choose to call them.  Elista is a mixed city where I would say half the toilets are western and the other half are the squatters.  I have used Western toilets my whole life and generally find them cleaner and easier to use and because of this I don't understand people's choice to use the squatters when these western toilets are everywhere. It seemingly makes no sense to me, yet I don't want to say these people are wrong because they're not.  It's simply misunderstanding and culture shock on my part.

Another example is washing clothes.  There is at least one washing machine here and I use it, I may be the only one in fact.  The other students prefer to hand-wash in their dorms, squatting uncomfortably for as long as it takes to wash their clothes.  To me, as a Westerner, this makes no sense.  You have an easy hands-free washing machine, so why spend your time in an uncomfortable position doing something you don't have to...right?  Wrong.  For them, it's what they are comfortable with and I'm sure it's likely that they view the use of a washing machine as weird as I do their choice to hand wash.  Neither of us is right or wrong in our choice, it is simply what we are used to.

Many, if not most, Americans would most likely share my sentiments here.  I'm lucky enough to have traveled a fair amount and seen some varying places, but even so I tend to cling to my Western ways.  The toilets are just one example.  Let's take the most prominent example of language.  I studied Russian for a number of years and even spent 5 months in the country, but I haven't truly spoken Russian for 2.5 years and I'm struggling with it and it's hard, and I'm often discouraged.  As I did before, as other Americans tend to do, I stick with what's comfortable, meaning I spend most of time my time speaking English with the people here who know how to speak it.

I guess what I'm trying to convey here is that Westerners, in my opinion and experience, are generally very close-minded when we get out of our comfort zones and I'm as guilty of this as anyone else.  Part of my experience here in Russia is to be able to really immerse myself in a culture that is not my own.  I'm the only Westerner here so one could assume it wouldn't be too difficult, but it's about being proactive and really getting involved in local culture and lifestyle, something too many Westerners miss out on when they go abroad.  They stay at nice hotels, they see the touristy sites and they eat things they know they like.  But they don't really realize the amazing things they're missing.  The people they could meet, the food they could eat and experiences they could have.

As I mentioned, this blog has useful information for everyone, but is inwardly directed, towards myself.  I, up until this time, have not been as proactive about getting out there as I can or should be and while there's only so much to be done (people here don't do much since there's not much to do), I can do better.  And so I urge you to travel, I urge you to experience new things, to eat foods you couldn't have imagined in your wildest dreams and to get out of the kiddy pool and dive into the deep end, even if you don't know how to swim.  I urge you to be proactive.  Learn a new language!  Americans are notorious around the world for being monolingual and it's both embarrassing and sad.  Plus your travels will be much more enjoyable and friendly when the locals see you don't stomp into their country demanding they speak YOUR language on THEIR soil and then you get upset when they don't speak any English (hey, that sounds kind of familiar? Don't we get upset over Spanish-speakers in our country? Maybe we should all travel a little and get a taste of our own medicine).

In truth, you don't even have to go abroad to experience this, you can have a very similar experience in the US.  Take Washington State as an example, my home state.  Eastern and Western Washington are like night and day.  Completely different beliefs and ideals abound on each side of the state.  Westerners often speak badly of Eastern Washington though they've never really been there.  And Easterners speak poorly of Western Washington though all they've ever really done is seen the Mariners, Seahawks or Kenny Chesney in Concert.  Travel a little in your own country and try something new because in a place like the US, there's new experiences to be had everyday.

But above all, Dear Readers, don't assume people are wrong because they don't do things the way you do.  I am guilty of this, we are all guilty of this in some form or another. I'm asking you to be open and be willing to accept that perhaps you are wrong.  That all your comforts here in the Western world may not be for everyone.  You may not like every new thing and experience and that's fine, you don't have to, but be open to giving it a chance and to respecting those who call it normal.

The View From Above

It's taken me awhile, but I'm finally getting around to blogging about where I actually live.  I live on the 5th floor of Dormitory #2.  For Fulbrighters, their host institutions will usually set up a temporary place of stay until the person finds an apartment, if he or she so chooses.  Well, in my case, I decided to stay at the dorm. Let me tell you about the pros and cons of living in this dorm because there are a great many.  Let's start with the cons because I generally tend to like saving the best for last.

There are probably more cons for living here in the dorm than pros, but I believe (or at least I want to believe) that the pros outweigh the cons.  So here goes.

CONS:
  • My room is on the 5th floor meaning I have to trudge my way up there several times a day, everyday.  This is worst in the morning when I have go down the five flights to get the shower key and back up to take a shower.
The "Toilet"
  • There are only 2 toilets on my floor for approximately 25-30 people and one shower, taking turns isn't an option, but a requirement.  Also, having only 2 toilets is bad for another reason.  Some of the students on my floor are more secure with squatty pottys than some of the rest of us.  What this seems to mean is that they refuse to sit down on a toilet and instead proceed to *expletive* all over the seat thereby rendering the toilet unusable for those of us less accustomed (or perhaps just less willing) to go the squatty potty way.  
  • It's really hot up here and there's no A/C. 
  • Our water just went out, making the toilet/shower/cleaning/cooking thing that much worse (my hallway smells like a port-a-potty since even though there's no running water to flush anything, people love to continue to use the toilets).
  • The other students are actually quite loud and though it is a dorm after all, many should at least learn to turn their computers/playlists/etc off repeat so I don't have to hear "Love the Way You Lie" 30 times a day.
  • I'm pretty sure I mentioned the spider thing in the bathroom right?
  • The dogs outside.  I don't know what provokes them to bark for so long and so often, but something does making it very difficult to sleep.
One of Elista's many homeless animals
  • Only being able to do laundry at certain times is also a minus, especially when the water is out and all your clothes smell because you can't take a proper shower.

Alright now let me go onto the pros.

PROS:

  • The dorm is free. Meaning I can actually save quite a bit of money.
  • I do have a pretty good view of the city and as my window faces almost directly west, I can get some pretty kick-ace views of the sunset as it goes down over the Steppe.
  • I have all the necessary items like a bed, desk, chairs, fridge, dresser, etc.  
  • The dorm is really close to the center of the city, the university and pretty much any and everything I'll need for my time here in Elista.
  • Going up all the stairs several times a day means being able to (hopefully) lose some weight as my eating habits here are far from great.
  • While my dorm-mates may be pretty loud, they are pretty cool even though we often can't get much out word wise since all of us speak pretty crappy Russian.

Well Dear Readers, your question for the day: Would you live here?  Yes, no or maybe?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Socks and Russia. Russia and Socks. *Parental Discretion Advised*

I love new socks.  I think they are quite possibly the greatest thing ever, but Russia is ruining them for me and I'll tell you why.  But first I'd like to go into a lengthy discussion and monologue about my love of new socks (slightly exaggerated).

I love new socks in the morning.  I love new socks in the evening.  I love new socks after a shower.  I love new socks on Sundays.  Basically I love new socks and if I had enough money I would have a brand new pair of soft, white cushiony socks with which to clothe my glorious feet.  These wouldn't be fancy socks, just your simple white-with-gold-toe cotton socks, but it would magical indeed.

Picture this: You wake up late on a Sunday morning after an enjoyable evening the night before.  You yawn and stretch, even contemplate just laying around in bed all day, but something is compelling you to leave that little slice of heaven you call your bed, something strong.  So you get up and manage to get through your morning routine, which culminates with a shower.  You get dressed in your best Sunday loungewear and sit down on your bed and think to yourself, "I'm missing something, but what is it?"  You're not sure why, but you're drawn to the dresser.  "Did I put my underwear on backwards again?" you say out loud as you approach the dresser.  So you check and no, everything there is quite fine, nothing weird like last time.   Your place your hand on the dresser, feeling the smooth mahogany under your fingertips, vaguely bringing back memories of something in the distant past.   Your hand moves to find the drawer handle, strong and firm, but wanting to pulled and so you oblige and you slide it open and what you find shines upon your face like the Holy Ark of the Covenant itself.  "Oh dear God, how could I ever forgotten!" you whisper and a single tear slides from your eye and moistens your cheek as it sparkles like a diamond from the light within.

What you see, Dear Readers, are brand new, white (with gold toe!) cushiony, cotton socks.

You immediately grab a pair and sit down to put them on your now clean feet.  You savor every moment as the cotton slides up around your toes, rubbing your heels ever so softly before settling just above your ankle, covering it like a seductive dress that clings to a woman's curves.  All of a sudden your senses sharpen.  Now you notice the birds singing, you hear the crackle of the bacon and the smell of fresh-brewed coffee coming from the kitchen, and the sounds of people on an early-Sunday stroll.  But none of this matters, for you have on new socks.  Is the coffee good? New socks.  Is the bacon burned? New socks.  Will the people on the street rob me? New socks.....and they are magnificent, divine and even noble.

Okay, so I don't like new socks that much, but once you start writing a story like that you can't stop.  Anyways, as I mentioned this blog actually IS about Russia and socks.  I'm not sure if it's because I'm still not used to being here or because I'm kind of on the other side of the world where maybe I've managed to get my lefts and rights confused, but something, something awful is causing me to put on my socks wrong.

In the past I've never had a problem putting on socks, but now every time, it seems, I get them crooked, completely ruining the feel that putting on a sock has.  This is slightly more than distressing, for the immediate concern in that I'm running out of new socks and want to savor each new pair as best I can, but more for the long term concern: what if this is permanent?  What if I am never able to truly enjoy a new pair of socks again because I can no longer put them on straight?  I don't honestly know what I would do.  I do know, however, that should that be the case I would never forgive Russia for robbing me of one the simplest, but more pleasurable joys in life.

So for the time being I leave you with this warning Dear Readers: do not take your socks for granted.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The First Day of the Rest of My Life

Today, I had the first of my "real" lessons and I think it went pretty well.  Twice a week I'll be doing "optional" classes for students who want to improve their language where we speak in English and talk about different topics in American Culture.

Today was the first of these classes and a majority of the class time was spent doing my introduction (which I happened to think was well done as well as quite brilliant and witty) and the students introducing themselves, during which we played two truths and a lie.  It was pretty fun and the students seemed to enjoy it, though the varying levels of English provided different levels of discussion depending on who was speaking at the time.

Our next topic was Independence Day.  Saturday, September 18th is День Города (Day of the City) here in Elista, which is a celebration of the day the city was founded and as such we discussed, briefly due to time constraints, Independence Day in the US.  I explained to the students what Independence Day is, what it means to Americans, how it is celebrated, etc.  All around, it was a great time, but then came the best part of the lesson.

My task to the students (thanks Melanie!!!!!!!!) was to have them create a holiday of their own. The students were asked to create a new holiday, create 2-3 traditions associated with the holiday, the date that it is celebrated and why people celebrate it.   In order to get them started, I provided my students with my own example.  Here is mine (and the students' holidays):

My example holiday was "The National Day of New Socks", which is celebrated on December 4th of every year.  On this day, each person puts on a brand new pair of white socks.  People also go out and buy the ugliest pair of socks they can find and give them, as a gift, to a family member.  I decided that this holiday is celebrated due to the heroics of Alexander J. Sockerson who gave out millions of pairs of socks during the Great Depression so that with no money, food or jobs, Americans would not go sock-less and have cold, dirty feet.  So was my example.

The first group created the "National Ice Cream Day" which is celebrated the 1st of June in order to make sure everyone feels happy and gets a chance to meet new people.  On this day people are only allowed to eat ice cream, wear clothes that resemble ice cream and throw ice cream at a stranger's face.  There is also an ice cream eating contest!

The second group had "The Day of Extreme Luck" which is a day for students who hope for lots of luck as they prepare to take their exams.  This holiday is on January 6th, the traditional day when exams begin in Russia after fall semester.  Students offer a prayer of sorts before the test and hope they have amazing luck during the test and that the questions they are asked to answer are the ones to which they know the answers.

The third group created "The Eggs Day".  This day is on January 1st and is there to celebrate...well I'm not entirely what they were celebrating...sort of a celebration of the Egg and of life itself I think.  They described how Jan. 1st is the day when the first hen apparently laid the first egg; how eggs are prepared in many different ways and perhaps most importantly, how eggs are a sign of fertility.  To celebrate this holiday, people run around and throw eggs at each other and the more eggs you end up getting pelted with the happier you should be!

Finally, the last group presented and  were, above and beyond, my personal favorite.  I was worried this group wasn't going to create anything since they were falling far behind other groups and we were running out of time, but they surprised me, boy did they surprise me.  This group created the "Beer Bellies Day", a day celebrated the last Sunday of each June whereupon the people drink unfathomable amounts of beer, wear shirts that showcase their beer guts and have beer drinking contests.  As if this wasn't enough, the group created a legend around how the holiday began, I'll do my best to retell it:

Once upon a time (Жили были...), long ago, there was a village where the people loved to drink beer.  They loved it more than anything else in the world, it was their sustenance and their life support.  But one day, one most unfortunate day near the end of June, just as the weather was reaching its peak for the summer, the village ran out of beer.  The villagers were completely distressed.  They would not drink water, nor juice, nor kvas.  All they wanted was beer, but alas, they had none and they knew what to do not.

But luckily for them, there exists a man of extraordinary capabilities.  Did you know that Santa Clause has a brother?  Yes he does and his name is Santa Beerman and unlike his cheerful, good-natured brother, Santa Beerman hates winter and Christmas, but loves summer and beer.  So on this most ill-fated of days in the village, appeared a man, a man most glorious and a man loved to this day.  This man was Santa Beerman and to the villagers he came with tidings of kegs and beer (unlike comfort and joy...pshh) and restored the village to it's legendary beer-drinking status.  To this day, the city still celebrates the coming of Santa Beerman through its "Beer Bellies Day" the last Sunday of each June.

This was the gist of the story my students told (okay I added a few descriptive words of my own for emphasis, but whatever, the story was theirs and theirs alone).  I was absolutely shocked by this "legend" and so happy they came up with it.  It was, perhaps, the most creative thing I've seen students ever do and thoroughly enjoyable.

Overall, I believe my first "optional" class went quite well and I hope the students enjoyed themselves and that they return for more of them (fingers crossed).  One disturbing thing, however, is that I offered my students cookies, which they didn't seem to want.  I had cookies set out and all ready to go and I ended eating most of them myself.  I was disappointed with their cookie appetites; I thought university students loved cookies, but it seems I was mistaken.

So, Dear Readers, goes my first class.  While I won't be blogging about every class I hold, I found this particular one special because it was my first and I was terribly nervous about it and I do hope there will be more.  So until next time!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Creature in the Bathroom

For those of you who know may, your first assumption will likely be that this is going to be a fairly disgusting blog post, but as with many posts as of late, I've fooled you yet again!  It will not be disgusting, at least not for many of you, however it is quite so for myself. For those of you who REALLY know me, then you'll certainly know what my greatest fear is and understand where I am coming from here.

I woke up this morning a little worse for the wear (stomach jihad is an inescapable impossibility when traveling - okay so it's a little gross, sorry).  But that's not what bothered me.  What I saw was something else, something that scared me infinitely more and sent a stream of shivers down my spine; the kind you feel when you're in a dark, damp basement all alone and your imagination gets the better of you.  What I happened to see was, or what I believe to be, a friggin enorgantongous (my own word - think enormous/gigantic/humongous) spider smashed on the wall.

This is a little more than disturbing to me.  My two biggest fears are 1. spiders and 2. going to prison (my true ultimate fear is a prison where all the inmates are horrible, horrible spiders...*shudder*) and while I have no intention of going to prison anytime soon, it is slightly more difficult to limit my contact with, and exposure to, spiders.

I. Do. Not. Like. Spiders. And to be perfectly honest, should one these horrid creatures, these spawn of Satan make its way into my room and/or anywhere near or on my person while I am unaware of it, I'll be out of Russia faster than you can say Perestroika.  I will disappear faster than a dissenter from the days of the Soviet Union.  Gone.  Vamos.  Из России, поняли?

I hate spiders so much that when I'm driving a car and there's a spider, I cease to drive the car.  My whole existence at that point is focused on removing that beast from my presence and I would sooner die in a fiery crash as my car careens off a cliff, exploding with movie-like quality, than let that little 8-legged freak on me.  Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.

Anyways, I just thought you should know, Dear Readers, that if you don't know much about Russia, then know this: there are some truly terrifying things here, lurking in the dark, waiting to spring when you least expect it, as if your worst nightmares have come to life.  Be ready and be afraid, be very afraid....

*Keep in mind that I tend to lie about the size of spiders in much the same way fisherman lie about the size of their catch.*

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My First Buddhist Prayer Session

This past Saturday some of the students at the university offered to take me to the big Buddhist Temple to see what a "service" is like...

This is my first Buddhist service and certainly my first Tibetan Buddhist one and however unlikely an experience it seems it could be, it did indeed happen within Russia.  Elista is the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the main religion and here it is Tibetan Buddhism.  Their temple is also the largest Buddhist temple in Europe and the Dalai Lama has visited here twice since the collapse of the USSR.

Before we could enter the temple, it's tradition to walk around it (on the upper platform), make a small coin donation and spin all the tiny prayer wheels.  There are several large prayer wheels around the temple and several others located throughout the city as well, but it's these that matter.  Anyways, one of my students graciously offered me some coins to lay down, though I had my own and when I tried to tell her no, she refused.  After this experience, it was time to go in.

As expected, there are no hats or shoes allowed in the main part of the temple during the service, this is a pretty common act in my experience in different Buddhist areas.  We walked in and in the middle of the room there were the monks (It's my understanding that all monks travel or have traveled to Tibet to study Buddhism and the language) performing and reading prayers, while on both sides there were many low benches for people to sit on.  

We came in and went to one of the back benches where we just sat down and listened to the prayers.  Some of the students performed some of the rituals as the bells rang as is common in a service, but I, not necessarily being Buddhist and having no clue as to what to do or really what was happening, just sat there and contemplated life.  With the exception of the student next to me continually interrupting me, it was an extremely peaceful experience, one in which I hope to repeat this Saturday and subsequent Saturdays following.  I'm also not sure how long the services usually are, but when we arrived it seemed that it had been in session for some time and we sat there for another 45 minutes.  

Anyways, after the service, everyone lines up and eventually goes through and offers gifts to the monks and is blessed by a monk, offers gifts to different statues of Buddha and other deities (though Buddha is not a god, I think there is a little left over here from the Kalmyk religion pre-dating Tibetan Buddhism in the region, but I'll find out) and at the end you are given water to wash your hands, face and I think hair as well as a bit of candy.  Another item which I didn't quite understand and one in which my students couldn't explain in English, was people kept putting water on a table during the service. After the service, one of my students grabbed a giant bottle of water from the table, telling me it was Saint's Water and that it should never touch the ground and every time I drink from it, I should make a wish.  Not sure of the significance, but I was touched all the same.

Afterwards, we walked around the temple, seeing the museum and taking a small tour (in Russian and most of which I, unfortunately, did not understand) as well as explored the upper level of the temple.  At this point we decided to leave and outside, but still within the temple courtyard, is a small tent set up in the style of Kalmyk people when they still lived as Nomads.  We went inside and the students first offered to buy me a glass of horse milk and then decided it wouldn't be very good at this particular joint (I'm quite grateful for this decision).  Instead they bought me a glass of the local Kalmyk tea, for which I unfortunately cannot remember the name.  Now I had heard that this tea or this type of tea was quite disgusting, but what I drank wasn't awful by any means.  It wasn't great either, but certainly not my least favorite drink (for that think more along the lines of something that starts with a Jaeger and ends with meister or soy milk...yuck).  Anyways, this particular tea is tough to describe.  It reminded me, sort of, like Indian chai only without any of the delicious cinnamon and cardamom flavor (no real flavor at all) and instead of sweet, it's salty.  I was also told that this particular tea was без сахара, meaning it didn't have any sugar.  I'm not sure if it's supposed to have sugar, but it sure couldn't have hurt.

We did quite a bit more after the temple, but it was considerably less exciting and I'll save it for another blog, so until next time Dear Readers....

My Own Personal Newman

For those of you who watched, are watching and will continue to watch Seinfeld, then this will seem very familiar to you.

It just so happens that each night, around 2-3 am, a dog starts barking and wakes me up.  I don't know why  it does it every night, let alone at the same time, but it does and this dog doesn't just let out a few гав-гавс, this mother trucker barks for at least an hour or more.  Unfortunately, they lock my dormitory doors at 11 and I am unable to leave without waking up one of the ladies with keys.  This isn't something I'm real keen on since they don't like it and in order to silence this particular dog (because as much as I love dogs, I hate this one and well, you get the idea), I'd have to spend the evening wandering in pitch darkness during the witching hour, no thanks.

What I need is Newman.  I need hire to Newman to dognap this dog, take it out far far into the country and to get it lost in a pack of camels.  Only unlike Newman's first attempt in the city, this one had better work.  This dog keeps me up and nothing drowns him out.  I close my windows? He seems to bark louder (not that closing the windows makes much difference anyhow).  I put in my headphones and the dog barks louder still. It's extremely frustrating and it's killing my sleepy-time.

So Dear Readers, if you happen to know a Newman in Elista or even in Russia at-large, please let me know. Oh Newman where are you....

Friday, September 10, 2010

Buddhism and Mexican Mystery Meat Macaroni...probably not related.

So two totally unrelated topics for this particular blog...at least for the moment.  You shall see dear reader, you shall see.

First and foremost, I went and saw the Buddhist temple here in Elista (though I did not yet have a chance go in).  It's an extremely beautiful temple and extremely out of place.  As I wandered the grounds, I had to keep reminding myself that I was, in fact, still in Russia. I find it especially interesting to see such a thing in Russia when the USSR, as an atheistic state, was so completely oppressive towards religion (though this was generally towards Russian Orthodoxy and Judaism and Buddhism isn't technically a religion, but philosophy - but I digress).

Anyways, it is one of the more nicely kept places I've seen in the two times I've been to Russia and I am extremely to go inside (this weekend - whooo!) and a place I can see myself going quite often.  I've always been quite curious about Buddhism and this would be a great opportunity to learn more and to practice speaking Russian as well.

As far as cooking goes, I had my first experience cooking in my dorm...finally.  I finally acquired all the necessary (well, almost) pieces needed to actually cook a meal.  This includes not just the food, but I had to find a pot or two and some pans, some silverware, a knife and some matches.  Not to the mention the daunting task of buying meat at a Russian market, something I'd be quite terrified to do in English as I have no idea what I'm doing.

Well after assembling my team and buying the necessary food stuffs, I proceeded to cook.  I was a little nervous for some reason and almost managed to forget how to make simple pasta, but luckily I was awake enough to realize I was doing something wrong.  I managed to make some penne and when this was done, I started with the mean.  Perhaps I should first say that I was simply trying to make some sort of spaghetti-pasta-esque type dish, really really really simple.  I have no idea what kind of meat I purchased.  They told me, but I didn't know the word, but it seemed to have the same look and texture of hamburger so I figured what the hell.  Anyways, the meat proved more of a challenge because the burner it was on kept going out, which is extremely frustrating, though I managed to finish it and cook it al the way through...at least I think, I'm not sick yet so that has to count for something.

Next I added my "sauce", which due to an error of not reading the Russian label was not tomato/spaghetti sauce, but rather a tomato sauce with ginormous chunks of read and green peppers that actually tasted much more like salsa than spaghetti sauce.  At this point, however, I didn't much care and threw it in anyways.  By the time it was all said and done, what I ended up with was what I like to call my "Mexican Mystery Meat Macaroni" (even though it wasn't macaroni, it has a nice ring to it).  I have to admit that it didn't taste half bad, though it needed a few other garnishes which I didn't have (onion, salt/pepper, some oregano, etc), but it was sustenance and sustenance that I had created myself.  I think it's safe to say that I was pretty happy both that I had made it and that it didn't kill me!

Now, you may think to yourself, Buddhism and Mexican Mystery Meat Macaroni are completely unrelated and in most respects they are, but I intend on combining the two, well more Buddhism and cooking as opposed to Mx4.  I've been finding myself quite stressed while here, unfortunately, but this is due to a serious language deficiency on my part as well as my university stretching me quite thin on things they'd like to do with me.  As it is, I've decided to take Buddhism into the kitchen.  No, this doesn't mean that I'm going to become a vegetarian, but rather try to go into cooking with a peaceful mind since cooking here is a bit stressful due to lack of tools, lack of space and lack of options.  So I'm hoping after a full-on visit to the Buddhist Temple and perhaps a little meditation, I can cook in peace and hopefully cook well.

Until next time Dear Readers...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The *Seemingly* Eligible Bachelor...and the Autobahn

So here in Elista I seem to be an oddity, meaning I'm a blond-haired male, of which there are very, very few, at least from what I've seen. I'm also an American whose Russian is, well, laughable or perhaps endearing, to many of the native speakers here.

These two things have several implications; the first being that the women  here seem to find me considerably more fascinating than the men do.  The men tend to simply stare, glare and just generally mean-mug wherever I go (when I say men, I mean people around my age), while the girls also stare, but giggle a little more and downright laugh when they hear me speak in Russian, but this only intensifies their stares.  So far I've had one creepy stalker-ish experience (ask me about it and I'll tell you, but I don't care to put it on here for the whole world to see), been approached by several girls seemingly under the influence and yesterday even had one mother approach me and repeatedly ask me to come and meet her daughter.

All of these make for a very interesting dynamic here and make everyday a new experience.  However, also on the topic of bachelors, one of the professor's sons got married this past weekend and I was told, as is per tradition here in Kalmykia, she brought in wine, champagne and Kalmyk donuts (think of a fried donut with no sugar or anything, just bread more or less - not bad, but not much flavor either) and we had drinks and snacks at around 11 in the morning.  I do actually hope to be able to attend a wedding while I'm here so I can learn more about Russian weddings and Kalmyk weddings as I know they are quite different from American weddings, but we'll see if that's possible.

On the note being 'eligible', a 'bachelor' or even 'alive', I think one false step here while crossing a street could change everything.  People drive here like it's the autobahn and I'm POSITIVE that I hear engines and cars revving and speeding up as I start crossing streets.  I'm positive.  This isn't, generally speaking, a great thing especially if, like today, it rains and there's more or less oceans of standing water in the roads.  Man can those cars really spray that disgusting muddy water at the speeds they go....crazy...  Also, the ambulance drivers here seem to be just old men, whom I'm sure have no medical training whatsoever (I may be completely off base here as well), which should you get an in accident doesn't bode well for you immediate health.  However, since the streets here are an equivalent to the Indy 500, I'm confident in saying that these ambulance drivers are probably some of the best and while you may die from lack of medical treatment at the initial site, they'll be sure to get you to the hospital before you can say "I can see the light..."

Well Dear Readers, it's getting late and I should probably go to bed.  There will be certainly be many more blogs to come as everyday here seems like a new adventure!

Elista once more...Laundry and the Squatty Potty

Well dear readers, tomorrow will put me at the week mark here in Russia.  I both cannot already believe it's been a week and at the same time can't believe it's only been a week.  I haven't exactly started my teaching yet and will be doing so in segments as the weeks go by.  It's going to be an interesting experience because for the first several weeks I will be teaching an "optional" class, in English and on American culture, for students who want to improve their English and spending time in various professors' classrooms as they ask me in as a guest speaker/lecturer/teacher/American.  It will be sort of a hectic schedule for a while with not real set schedule, which is a bit unnerving, but I'll have to make due.  Come mid-Oct to late November, I'll start working with Access students, which is 10-14 year old students working on improving their English in sort of an afterschool type program.  Should be fun and quite interesting.

Anyways, update on my living conditions.  I did laundry! Sweet! And better yet??? I didn't have to wash it by hand, which is great because let's be honest; for those of you who know me, if I had to do something by hand, it's likely it wasn't going to get done, which means I'd almost certainly become the smelly kid in class. I mean factor in some dirty clothes with the heat and dust here... fuhgeddaboudit.

I also got a fan for my room.  Strength-wise it kinda feels like maybe a baby fart (that means it's real week and doesn't put out much air), however it seems to be getting the job done during the warm nights, though the last couple of nights have been considerably cooler and it even rained last night.

Now for the big one (no pun intended): the squatty potty.  Bathrooms here are something that I'm still having considerable trouble getting used to, like bringing my own toilet paper everywhere I go.  The lights in the bathrooms in the dorm do not work so we're going in the dark (I'm gonna ask Springsteen or maybe Weird Al to write "Pooping In The Dark") and if Jake Phillips should read this blog....well he can ask me about blind people....   Anyways, I digress so now back to topic.  The bathrooms at the university seem to only be squatty potties, which means no toilet per se, just a hole in the ground and I won't do this.  I just won't.  It's a disaster waiting to happen with scenarios so unimaginably horrible that I don't dare speak of them.  What all this means is that there is an extremely likely chance that, like my previous time in Russia, a serious bathroom disaster is bound to happen only this time it will, in all likelihood, be considerably worse and that is a terrifying thought indeed.

So ponder these thoughts Dear Reader and be grateful, be grateful indeed. Until next time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Last Night....

This is just going to be a quick post, but had an interesting first Saturday night yesterday.

Since I don't know anyone yet really or have a mobile to call anyone with, I spend the evenings at home (it doesn't help either that I'm still off time wise and can't make it past around 10 at night without passing out).  Anyways, around 9 last night I got a Russian "Hamburger" and it was different.  It looked like a hamburger, but didn't really taste anything like an American would expect and to be honest I should have known this before I bought it, but oh well.  It was awful, but it was far from my favorite thing I've ever had either.

As I was eating my "hamburger" some (I assume) somewhat drunk Russian kids came up to me and started chatting me up a little, a little in English and a little in Russian.  My Russian skills being what they are, it afforded me a great opportunity to get made fun of by all those within earshot.  Overall, not the best dining experience I've ever had.


But oh my night doesn't end there dear readers!  It was hot, humid night and as the witching hour approached I was awoken from a deep, sweat-filled sleep by the fluttering of wings.  I opened my eyes and from the faint shimmer of light coming in from the windows I could just make out a tiny bat zipping back and forth across my room.  I surprised myself by being quite calm, putting a towel on my head (to keep it out of my hair) and left to go to the bathroom.  When I returned, the damned thing was still there despite its little friends hovering around outside.  I flipped on the main light in my room and waited for the bat to leave, which took God knows how long.  It finally left and I managed to crawl back into bed and fall asleep with a little help from Jerry Seinfeld and company.

Overall, it was quite an eventful night for one that was so uneventful.  Until next time dear readers...

Elista....здесь в Элите

So I finally arrived here in Elista.  I have to admit that part of me never actually thought it would happen, that time would speed up and John Cusack would swing by my apartment, pick me up in an RV and take me to a secret location in China where I'd be whisked away aboard a giant ship until the apocalypse had subsided.....

But all apocalyptic jokes aside, I am here in Elista and it's both what I expected and a great deal of what I didn't.  Let's start with what I did expect.  It's hot.  Really hot.  At least compared to Moscow.  The overwhelming majority of people here are of Asian descent, something I was very much expecting and much of the architecture is Asian as well. The food is decidely Russian, which is something I expected since I'm in Russia, but the local Kalmyk cuisine I've tried also seems very Russian, but pleasantly tasty!


There is much more unexpectedness so far though, however. For example, even though the city has a population of approximately 100,000, the city center and city itself feels to me, more like that of a city with maybe 10,000 people.   I'm living, free of charge, in a university dorm, which is a 5 minute walk or so from downtown, from the university and from everything I really need.

I'm also (pleasantly) surprised by the availability of everything.  All the things I could ever need from toiletries to houseware items are readily available and easily accessible.  When I was in St. Petersburg, it seemed I had to travel much farther distances and endure much more of the harshness of the "search" where as here everything is within sight.

I'm also surprised by the exchange of money.  In St. Petersburg you were much more likely to get scolded if you did not put your money in the tray or have exact or close to exact change.  Here, however, the trays are there, but I don't get yelled at (at least not for that, just when I speak Russian...haha) and while exact change is preferred, it doesn't seem to be a big deal (I even used a 1000 ruble note for purchase of around 650 and it wasn't a problem!!! Yay!).

It came as a bit of a shock that they have bowling here (totally flipping awesome!!) and I'm hoping that by the end of the year I can become the Big Lebowski aka The Dude of Elista.  Now I just have find a Walter and a Donny....

I am a little annoyed by some of the beauracratic items of daily life (not being able to obtain a cellphone sim card without my registration for example), but these were not unexpected, nor are they really that inconvenient.

I'm a little unsure as to where the best place to buy good fruit and veggies is, but I'm sure I'll find that out.  Until next time dear readers...

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Washington & Moscow..Two very different places.

*UPDATE: I'm updating this entry with some more details!

This is sort what I have for the last week.

I arrived in DC on the 24 and was extremely tired and as such didn't end up doing much, except for going to see the Expendables with Ana.  Hilarious movie!!

I spent the rest of the week in DC having an absolute blast with the most amazing person ever.  We saw all the good sites and even a few of the bad ones.  Luckily, this time our hotel wasn't in the absolute ghetto and there were no guys running around with straight razors and cops having to tackle him.  Ana and I saw pretty much everything.  We went to the mall, the museums (the space and flight museum was particularly amazing) and had a few other highlights.  We took a free tour of the Capitol building, which was simply amazing.  Great history and just pure awesomeness.  We did, however, have this really annoying old couple on the tour who seemingly wanted to prove our tour guide wrong at every turn.

We had some delicious Pho, I was able to see a few old friends whom I hadn't seen in several years and we were generally able to have an all around great time!  Perhaps the best time was sitting at a little bookstore looking through a book of different dogs.  Might sound lame to some, but we loved it!  This time in DC was also really nice because it wasn't anywhere near as hot so we were able to walk around without getting soaked with sweat.

There was also some "Restore Faith" deal at the mall, a Glenn Beck event with  Sarah Palin speaking.  It was a "non-political" (haha) rally to get Americans to restore their faith in, well, in whatever Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin seem to believe in.  Needless to say, I didn't hang around to find just what exactly these Tea Party People were spewing.  I still can't believe that he (Glenn Beck) is from Washington State...

Let's see, what else happened in DC? Ana and I got to check out the mall at night, which is, in my opinion, infinitely more gorgeous.  It's truly inspiring to see our nation's capital all lit up at night and to think about, truly think about, what we, as a country, had to endure to become what we are today.  On that note, we also visited Arlington National Cemetary. I have to admit that Ana was much more excited about this than I was, but when we arrived it, too, was simply gorgeous, but in a very humbling manner. We were able to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which again was amazing.  Overall, the cemetary has the ability to really make you think.  You see all the graves (just a fraction of, but still so many), the people who have fought and died for this country and will make you stop in your tracks and make you more proud to be an American than you probably ever have. 

Anyways, our place was great and I had the best week I could have asked for with the best person ever!  However, getting to Dulles and checked into my flight proved to be a challenge.  The "25-30" minute bus ride took an hour and check-in for my flight was really long and a hassle.  I ended up making it to my gate right as it was my time to board.  Then I was off....

I arrived in Moscow to a balmy 45 degrees with strong winds and lots and lots of rain.  That was totally unexpected and I wasn't quite ready for it.  I got both my bags and ended up taking a cab to my hotel to spend the night to await my flight to Elista for the next day.  I hung out in the hotel and then caught the metro up to McDonald's to snag some free wifi.  I'd forgotten what a hotspot McDonald's is because the place was absolutely packed the couples hours I was there (yes I spent a couple hours in McDonald's, what can I say, it's like my Starbucks of Russia...haha).

Woke up pretty early (read 2 am - ugh I hate jet lag), and finally made my way to the airport.  It took me a long time as my hotel's taxi service was going to take about an hour, so I made my way one metro station and finally caught a cab.  The airport was even more stressful as I read the screens wrong and almost missed check-in, then got yelled at by the guy checking me in because I couldn't understand what he was saying.  My flight has currently been delayed two hours so I'm hanging out here at Domodedovo getting some blog time in.  Trying to check my bags here at Moscow has been a hassle.  My Russian speaking skills have failed me on more than one occasion and it's just been really frustrating.  I suppose that's what I'm most apprehensive about, the fact that I'm alone as a native speaker.  It's very scary.

Anyways, I'm going to see if I can board.  I have really no idea what's going on so I figure I better check it out.  Till next time.