Monday, August 15, 2016

Isn’t It Ironic

When I told my family and friends I would be going to Siberia for the summer, they asked, “Is your mother doing this to punish you?” and “Isn’t it, like 40 below there?” and even a couple asked, “Siberia is somewhere in Africa, right?”  After spending five weeks in Barnaul, I have come to view Siberia as an extremely beautiful and sacred place that has grown very close to my heart, nothing like the prison in a snowy tundra that many imagine. It is ironic that for our entire stay, the weather has been in the 90’s and humid, leaving all of us dripping in sweat and wishing we had brought more summer clothes. My whole stay has left me thinking of all the other humorous little ironies and quirks I have come to discover about the real Siberia, good, bad, and mystical.

During my time here many things have left me baffled and confused. I asked and asked for answers and never seemed to get any. Why does everyone wake up early to sweep their front stoops that are only made of dirt? With such bad mosquitoes this particular summer, why hasn’t anyone sprayed for them, or even easier, why doesn’t anyone put any screens in their windows? If the people here are so connected to nature and care about the land and worship the Altai Gods, why do they allow the trains to dump all their human waste straight onto the tracks, toilet paper and feminine products included? Why hasn’t anyone bothered to build more plumbing in public places so there are fewer overflowing, smelly outhouses? How come the Russian standard of a “level” surface for a new sidewalk still has craters as big as a barbecue pit? and why do their women still walk the streets every day in six-inch-heels and summer dresses? (All I know is that the one time I walked on the sidewalks with my two-inch-heels I tripped, my dress flew up, and I gave some nearby onlookers an authentic American show).

As a biology major and a feminist, I love science and I am very passionate about women’s equality. In a country that is partly known for its chivalrous ways, I knew I would be confronted with some ideals different from my own. But what I find the most interesting and confusing is not just the way that men will offer me their seat on a crowded metro or help to carry my fifty-pound suitcase up the stairs of the train station, but the very specific rules there are for women regarding their bodies. Tired and sweaty after standing throughout the entire Orthodox Mass one Sunday, I went outside to cool off. I sat down on the cool stone steps, despite warnings of the Russian babushkas that would scold me for attempting to freeze my uterus, making myself infertile for life. As if on cue, a babushka did eventually run over to me appearing very worried and yelling at me in Russian. Although I understand these women are only trying to protect me and my fragile ovaries, the scientist in me does not understand how anyone could even possibly believe this to be true.  There absolutely no science behind the thought that the temperature of a rock outside in 70degree Fahrenheit weather could travel through my skin, muscle and fat layers to hurt my fertility in any way. Another time, after riding our horses to the top of a mountain towards a sacred lake, we were informed by our guide that men should remove all head-coverings and most clothes but women were all instructed to put on head coverings and wear as much clothing as possible. The reason for this is so men could gain more wisdom from the spirits above with an uncovered head, but women could keep their bodies warm in order to protect their eggs. Whether or not these beliefs are simply rooted in tradition, the lack of scientific evidence frustrated and confused me.

 Ultimately I have decided that Siberia is very different from any other place I have ever experienced, and science did not measure the beauty and kindness I saw. Just because the people here think and do things much differently, these things are not wrong. Siberia has helped me to appreciate different beliefs and traditions, whether rooted in science or not. Because these beliefs are as much a part of Siberia as the snow, the scorching heat and the caring babushkas, I choose to believe that walking around barefoot without any slippers truly does cause colds, and that it’s best for my future children if I cover my head when I’m by a sacred lake.

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