Friday, July 29, 2016

Adventure in the Mountains

Heather Goldberg, South Seneca Central School District

Majestic is the word that came to mind as the Golden Altai mountain range first came into view on our approach to the area from Barnaul. It was the first weekend excursion and we had been travelling for many hours. This view was the payoff.

At first only ridges in shades of blue and green revealed themselves, but soon we were close enough to see the “velvety” surface of these mountains. Within minutes they surrounded us. Looking in any direction one couldn’t help but to be awestruck by this new world of green rolling hills and layers of velvety peaks, one in front of the other, in front of still others.

Our first stop was at an Altai dairy farm, “Farm Three A,” where we tasted fresh made cheeses, milk, honey, visited with the goats, and relished in the beauty of this countryside.

We arrived at our destination for overnight accommodations “Forest Fairytale,” aptly named, nestled in the Altai mountains, surrounded by forest. After a good night’s sleep, shower and breakfast, we loaded into jeep-like vehicles for what would be the off-road adventure of a lifetime! We stopped briefly, early in the journey at a spot where a stream runs through the boundary of the Altai Krai and Altai Republic. The stream marks the “return home” for many traveling Altaians. Here there are totems and a multitude of colorful ribbons tied to branches of the trees near the stream. 

It is an Altai tradition to stop as you travel by to take time to pay tribute to the elements of the natural world. The focus at this sacred spot is to thank God, not to ask for anything. This place of spiritual contemplation is usually found near water and usually at higher elevations. According to Altai tradition, ribbons are tied to birch, cedar, or fir trees. Visiting tourists often tie to any available tree. White ribbons signify clear, clean thoughts and good-natured desires and are a tribute to spirits or gods. This was a beautiful example of the history of the deep connection between the people who inhabited and still inhabit this region of the world, and their natural environment. Several of us washed our faces or hands in the stream, and some drank from the stream before we continued on our way.

Our driver hauled five of us up the mountain through two to three feet of mud in some spots, up a stream-bed (with water flowing!), over, between and around large rocks and boulders, and along a cliff’s edge. We bounced around the vehicle holding onto any available handles, many times in disbelief we’d be able to continue due to recent rain and very rugged terrain. It was just another day on the mountain for our very skilled driver.

When we stopped to allow the other vehicles in our caravan to catch up, we tried in vain to capture the views with our cameras.

We arrived at the trail’s head and began our trek up the River Shinok Gorge. This was no small feat. The path was quite slippery with mud. We had to cross streams several times, sometimes using a rope to steady ourselves! In other spots we used rocks and tree roots as handles to climb the steep incline.
There were ropes tied to trees in some areas to assist us. Each of three waterfalls we encountered made every step worthwhile. Our amazing guides Igor and Elena prepared a delicious picnic lunch for us mid-hike to provide us with energy to complete this journey.

Elena was our “Mary Poppins” on this, and all excursions so far, pulling out a seemingly endless supply of snacks, and drinks among other things, from her bag. None of us can figure out how it all fits in that bag! We enjoyed tea and snacks at the climax of the hike. Even in the wilderness, Igor and Elena show us true Russian hospitality.

In addition to the beauty of the trail and views we took in from it, I was amazed by the number of small children we encountered on the hike. Russians are a hearty bunch! It was as if some of these families were out for the day for a picnic and seemed to have approached this endeavor much more casually than our group. Many folks we saw were hiking in water shoes and every day type clothing, while we were outfitted in outdoor gear and shoes we hoped would give us an edge in this natural environment.

That evening, back at the lodge at “Forest Fairytale,” we ate, showered our exhausted bodies, then gathered in an ail for a campfire and camaraderie.

This first encounter with the Golden Altai has given me a glimpse into the landscape and history of a region that inspired settings for Shukshin’s books, and paintings by artists like Sergei Prokhorov. The beauty and diversity of landscapes we encountered were not at all what I expected from my idea of “Siberia” before coming to Russia. Once these mountains greet your heart and eyes they will always be with you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

First thoughts on Russian and American schools

Janet Murphy, Union Springs School District

Since teaching is my passion, visiting schools has been the experience that I have really wanted to sink my teeth into.  Thankfully, we’ve visited many and after each school visit I am up at night with my head full of reflections and questions I wish I’d asked. I’d like to share a piece of that here.  

Igor Kolesov, AltGPU; Tatiana Grigorievna, Principal,
School No. 55

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A brief program update

As I write this post, my window in the Profilaktory, our home away from home, is open to the rain that continues to pour here in Barnaul. Despite the rain and the distant thunder, a crew of five young men pounds away at the sidewalk just below me, breaking it up in order to pour new concrete. Only one is wearing rain gear, and at this point, he is just as soaked as the rest.

Our group at Gymnasium No. 89, with some of its teachers and pupils

My unexpected bit of Siberian culture

"ОКНО No. 5"

Window number five... actually /ahkNO NOmer pyat/

I felt a bit of elation that I could read this short phrase with fluency and automaticity. Sure, it's basically three words but this was the first time, I think, that I recognized Russian words so readily since arriving in Barnaul. And, that bit of elation was a welcomed emotion because I was standing in line at the medical clinic – at Window Number 5 - about to access the Russian medical system.

Ok, here I was in Siberia for a 5+-week program that promised wondrous adventures to expand my understanding of this amazing culture. Yet, apparently I wasn’t satisfied with that. I found a way to experience, very intimately and personally, a bit of everyday culture here in Siberia. I think my little “adventure” into the healthcare system will end up being as important as the lectures, classes, service projects, and excursions will be in growing my understanding of the culture of the Golden Altai.

Prior to leaving for Russia, I had sought medical attention back home for some inflammation of my elbow. I was prescribed an anti-inflammatory and went on my way. On Friday morning, a week and half into my trip, a 4-inch hematoma appeared around my elbow. It really wasn't painful but looked rather gruesome. The timing couldn't have been worse. We were scheduled to depart for our weekend excursion at 2 pm that afternoon. Fortunately, there is medical staff on duty here in the Profilaktory – the building in which we are staying for these 5 weeks. Irina Viktorovna, the medical doctor on staff, examined my arm. She deemed me well enough to travel to the mountains which was probably a good thing. (By the look on everyone's faces, it seemed that they weren't sure what to do with me if I had to stay back. I'm imagining them thinking of some sort of Home Alone scenario.) The recommendation was to keep my elbow wrapped in an ACE bandage for the weekend. Prof. Welsh wrote down the Russian words for "compression bandage" and I was off to the аптека (pharmacy).

On my way, I practiced the lines I would say and, as I entered the shop, I greeted the young woman behind the counter: Я из америки. Я не говорю по-русски. (I'm from America. I don't speak Russian.)

To which the shop assistant responded, "Can I help you?"

"Oh, you speak English?" I asked. Well, I wasn't going to let that stop me from finishing my dialogue so I continued with my final sentence: Меня зовут Пол. ("My name is Paul.") And, as I am wont to do, I waved my right hand to the floor. Since I had recently found out that the word for floor is "пол" - just like my name – I sort of use that gesture to indicate the pronunciation of my name. After purchasing my bandage, I headed back to the Profilaktory where Irina Viktorovna wrapped my arm before I boarded the bus for our weekend excursion.

Over the weekend, Liz was my AT and wrapped my elbow each morning – even providing me with safety pins when the original clips broke. (Thanks, Liz!) The swelling didn't get worse and the hematoma didn't expand; things were looking up.

On Monday morning, Prof. Welsh arranged for me to visit a nearby medical clinic later that afternoon. After lunch (with my passport and HTH medical insurance card in tow), Irina Viktorovna and I headed out for the 20-minute walk to the clinic. Now, you already have a sense of my proficiency in Russian. While I can't be sure, I don't think Irina Viktorovna's English was much better. In order to break the uncomfortable silence and ease the bit of anxiety I was experiencing because of my impending visit to a medical clinic in a foreign country, I racked my brain for something to say. Every day in class we practice dialogue, I thought. I should be able to think of something to say.

Лионель Месси из аргентины. (Lionel Messi's from Argentina.)
Кто Вы по профессии? (What do you do for a living?)
У вас есть слоны? (Do you have any elephants?)
Какой у вас номер телефона? (What's your phone number?)
Почта на улице ленина. (The post office is on Lenin Street.)

Oh, I give up! We walked the rest of the way in silence.

We arrived at the medical clinic and were met by Igor Kolesov from Altai State Pedagogical University. And, this takes us back to where my blog post began. We entered the building and walked up to one of the windows in the vestibule (window # 5, actually). I was asked for my passport and visa. Igor handled all the questions and answers. We were given a slip, my passport was returned, and we proceeded to walk up to the 4th floor. (Yes, the building is a walk-up - no elevators here!)

There were long halls and rows of chairs and benches. Off the long hallways there were small spaces leading to 3 or 4 other doors. In these spaces there were more chairs. Some were empty; others were overflowing with adults and children waiting their turn to see one of the doctors. We took a spot in the main hallway and waited our turn. To me, there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the process. A person would exit one of the doors and one of the people waiting would get up and enter. I don't recall any names or times being called. (But, remember, my Russian is basically non-existent so I just sat there like a lost child waiting for an adult to take my hand and lead me to where I needed to go. All a bit disconcerting, to say the least.)

After a short time, Irina Viktorovna motioned for Igor and me to follow her into one of the rooms. There were two small desks (back-to-back) and a woman seated there. I assumed she was the doctor but then Igor told me that I could have seat until the doctor arrived. (Still, no clue what was happening.)

Finally, a second woman entered the room and Irina Viktoronva began to explain why I was there. Well, I think that's what she was doing. (Remember, I don't really know any Russian so they could've been discussing the weather while pointing in my direction.) At some point, Igor began to translate the questions that the doctor had for me. As an ESOL teacher, I often find myself in a situation in which I am communicating through an interpreter. I also spent 11 years in healthcare, so for a few minutes I was actually quite comfortable in this milieu. While the doctor was pushing and pulling on my arm, she continued to speak to Irina Viktorovna. At the same time, Igor was translating for both me and the doctor. And, at one point, the other woman began to speak. (I actually think all 5 of us were speaking there for a minute or so.) Eventually, somehow, a diagnosis was made and a course of action was prescribed.

We left the office after only a few minutes with 3 slips of paper. From the medical clinic, we headed to the аптека to buy whatever it was that the doctor prescribed. It ended up being some kind of solution and an ointment. Before leaving us, Igor explained that the doctor would be applying the solution in a dressing to my arm and that I was to use the ointment twice a day. There would also be some physio-therapy each day.

Back at the Profilaktory, Irina Viktorovna introduced me to Luba who applied this device to my elbow. Irina Viktorovna told Luba "десять минут" and looked at me. She paused a few seconds while she seemed to be whispering something. Finally, she spoke aloud and said, "Ten minutes."

"I know," I said. "I understood!" Hm, maybe I actually HAD been learning some Russian this week!

After the 10 minutes had elapsed, Luba brought me into another room where she motioned for me to sit down on an examination table. In whispered tones, she and Irina Viktorovna began to work. (I'm not sure why they were whispering – I couldn't understand anything they were saying anyways!) They began to unwrap a package of gauze, take out some cotton, collect a small basin off a nearby shelf and pull out a 10cc syringe with an 18-gauge needle. Wait, an 18-GAUGE NEEDLE???!!! What do they need with an 18-gauge needle? Igor assured me that all the treatments were topical. He didn't say anything about an 18-gauge needle. (I used to perform venipuncture when I worked in healthcare so the needle itself didn't bother me. I just didn't want them sticking THAT needle in MY arm.)

Quickly, my eyes darted around the room and I sought possible exits should they come at me with the needle. Thankfully, before I made a mad dash for the exit, I saw that they were using the needle to draw off concentrate from the bottle! I smiled and nodded my head as they finished preparing the materials and then applied the compress to my elbow.

"Один час," Luba told me. Oh, one hour! I UNDERSTOOD that!! Hey, maybe some of Dasha's lessons really were working!!

I stood up and left them with the biggest, most heartfelt "Спасибо" I could muster. Over the next 4 days I would make my afternoon visits to Luba and Irina Viktorovna. We never really carried on any sort of conversation in words. But, I did make them smile when, after they applied the compress each day, I would say, "Один час."

"Да, Один час,” Luba would confirm with her bright smile.