Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Twilight Zone

Getting ready to go to Africa is a very strange feeling! I don't know why it seems so different from the rest of the world, but I will soon find out.

Today, however, I found myself outside of St.Petersburg at the site of a future camping ground. We were clearing the area to make it usable. While we were there, everyone starting receiving phone calls that there had been a radiation spill. Another call confirmed that it had been on the news and that Russians were being advised to stay home and drink a special milk concoction.

Meanwhile, we had a cookout and got acquainted with a lizard named Sasha (so named by the 5-yr-old) whose mother tongue is Finnish.

I started taking anti-malarial pills yesterday. There are warnings written all over the container, and I thought it would have a strange effect on me, like turn me into a frog or something. But so far, all is well.

Now I still need to gather my things, and more importantly, my thoughts!

I'll see my family soon! :)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Summer farewells

I visited the orphanages for the last time this week. The kids are off to camp soon, and I am off on my own travels.

The orphanage I visit on Wednesdays has felt like a battle zone lately. There were a couple kids who were behaving particularly badly, and after I prayed about it, those kids didn’t come to the lesson for a few weeks. That wasn’t exactly the result I was hoping for. But I continue to pray for them.

This Wednesday, I made a board game to use for the year-end review session, designed after “Chutes and Ladders.” I decorated it with stickers, hoping that the visual presentation would draw the kids’ attention. The kids were fairly cooperative about participating in the lesson, not counting the usual interruptions. I had a few new kids visiting. One, a girl of 10 or 11, played the game with us despite not knowing any English. The other visitor was a 6 yr old whom I first mistook for a boy, but turned out to be a girl with a shaven head (head lice???). She sat and grinned as we finished the lesson.

But I can’t really say that all was well. One of the more disruptive students was misbehaving again. He’s 11 or 12. I was very dismayed (to say the least) when he started making sexual advances toward a 9 yr old girl. It fits with his pattern of behavior, but to see the younger kids involved is heartbreaking. Even more disturbing was that the girl didn’t object. She simply giggled a little bit. There was only one other child in the room at that point. I looked at her and she looked confused and disturbed. She told the counselor that the boy was bothering them, and the boy was dismissed.

This had taken place before the 6 yr old entered the room. But I shudder to think of her becoming a victim, too.

I feel prompted to pray for God to erase these children’s memories. There is a time when reconciliation and forgiveness is needed, and there is a time when it is better to just forget. They are still young enough that maybe it's not too late to leave everything in the past. God can always redeem lives...

(Misha, below, is not the culprit)

(But Katya, below, was an unfortunate witness to Roma's inappropriate behavior)

Airport procedure

I'm still waiting to be enlightened on what to expect when I land in Kinshasa. So I decided to do a little investigating on my own, with the help of Google.

Here's the first article I opened:

"Legend has it that when an aircraft becomes too sick or too old to manage on it's own, the other aircraft in the herd sense its distress. At an appointed hour they accompany it on a very long journey to the hidden aircraft burial grounds somewhere deep in the jungle. That hidden aircraft burial ground is called: Kinshasa Airport..."

Ummm. Reading on...

"Upon arrival at Kinshasa, you find your way into the large arrival area. There are four or five immigration booths where immigration officers stamp your passport. After working your way through the line you will pass through a large door into the customs/baggage claim area. There will be numerous apparent loafers around the door, and they may ask to see your passport. Some of these are, indeed, loafers and others are security agents. Ask to see identification before allowing anyone to gain possession of your passport. After baggage claim, you will present your baggage to the customs officer for inspection. Be very careful that your passport does not contain any visa or stamp from Burundi, Rwanda, or Uganda as a state of hostility exists between those countries and the DRC. "


Thursday, May 15, 2008

C'est une Americaine!

Per request, the details of my Moscow excursion:

I boarded the night train to Moscow and found my place in the lower bunk. It wasn't a bed yet, it was a sitting area. Then one person climbs up to the top bunk and the other converts the sitting area into a bed. My bunkmate helped me with this. I had been unsure at first if she was Russian, but then something about the way she ate her apple confirmed it. Plus, she was reading the Russian side of a Russian/English guidebook.

Keep in mind that I've been reading Chesterton's detective stories. This will come into play later as well.

After arriving in Moscow at about 6:30 am, I waited about an hour before going into the metro. Once there, I found it much less intimidating than expected. My previous experiences consisted of traveling in big groups with luggage, with people falling over luggage and getting separated by the automatic doors closing. I found the metro fairly easy to navigate, although on one of the lines they didn't announce the stops, which meant I had to crane my neck and read the sign through the windows.

When I got to the neighborhood where the Embassy was, I got turned around a little bit, but I still arrived at the right place at 9 am.

Now let's rewind a little bit to Monday afternoon when I was confirming information, trying to make sure I had the right address. Since there are two Congo's (DRC and Congo-Brazzaville), it was easy to get confused. In addition, I found different addresses and phone numbers for the Embassy, as well as conflicting information about obtaining a visa: some websites said 14 days minimum, others said less. Finally I called one of the numbers listed for the DRC, and they confirmed that a U.S. citizen could get a visa in one day. However, the guy was either in a rush or didn't speak Russian very well, so I couldn't get any other information, such as their working hours or how much the visa would cost.

Then, one Russian website revealed some interesting information. It described the Congolese Embassy (which I had telephoned) as being located in an apartment in a regular 9-story residential building. It explained that you must talk to the guard, and that it was advisable to phone ahead and set up a meeting, otherwise it was possible that there would be no one in the Embassy and you wouldn't be able to get in touch with anyone. Well, I had essentially phoned ahead and they hadn't said anything about setting up a meeting, so hopefully I was okay. But I wrote down all the numbers.

The next item on the website was a bit disturbing. It described a situation a few years ago with a division of power in the Moscow-based embassy, which led to another embassy being set up, and at some point there was even a fake embassy which gave fake visas, leading to people being deported upon arrival in Congo.

I decided to give my Congolese friend a call and get things straightened out. He assured me that the first address I had was correct.

Back to the story...

I arrived in the residential area where the embassy was and found the correct address. It was in a gated residential building matching the description of the one in the article. I hovered around the entrance and asked to go inside. The guard said that no one had arrived yet, but that I could sit on the bench. I explained that I had come from St.Petersburg and therefore it was urgent that I attend to business in the embassy. He tried to get in touch with the office but said that no one had come in to work yet. I sat on the bench, looking around. My senses were heightened because of reading the detective stories. I noticed that the guard was stricter with some people than with others. And there were a lot of foreigners coming and going. What else was housed in this building besides the Embassy of the DRC?

At one point, an African man passed through the checkpoint. I thought maybe he was the person I had been waiting for, but then he got in a car and drove back through the gate.

I sent a text message to my Congolese friend in St.P. asking if it was normal that it was 9:30 and no one had come to work yet. He said that they sometimes come in at 10:00. But the guard had said 9:00. Hmmm. If I couldn't get my visa today, I would have to somehow find a hotel room in Moscow and change my train ticket. And I would miss going to the orphanage. Not a desired outcome.

Suddenly the guard said, "They're in the office now, you can go in." That was strange, as no one had passed by. I left the bench and found my way inside. Once inside, I tried to get down to business, but they asked me to sit down and wait, even though I was the only customer. Supposedly the person I needed wasn't there yet. I peeked into another room and there sat the man who had driven away in the car. How had he gotten back inside without passing the guard? I realized later that there was a second entrance to the compound.

Eventually someone came and asked what I needed, translating from Russian into French for a second man. I could understand most of the French, but couldn't answer anything. There was initial confusion as they first thought I was Russian and then deduced, "Elle est americaine!" "Aaaaah, elle est americaine!" Then they remembered my phone call from last week. So it seemed that they were on top of things after all.

They asked me to wait again, and then another guy came out with the visa application. It was all very casual, but the form was in Russian and French, and after the train ride my brain was about to explode. For the first half of the form, I forgot to use capital letters. Then I forgot what address to use because I had been planning to use the consulate in the U.S., so my practice forms were all U.S. information while here I was obviously living in Russia. I couldn't think of any Russian addresses, so I put U.S. addresses and Russian phone numbers. Ha ha! I tried to ask the guy a few questions, but we weren't understanding each other's Russian.

He told me to hand over my documents and money. I tried to give him some more documents, like the Yellow Fever card and travel itinerary, but he didn't want them. Then I gave him my credit card, having checked "credit card," as the payment option, but he said they couldn't accept it, only cash. Usually they give you a bill and you pay at the bank, but here it was cash only. I didn't have enough money and asked where there was an ATM. He said there weren't any nearby, not even at the metro.

I set off to find an ATM, asking when I should return. "When would you like your visa?" he asked. "Ummm, in a few hours?" "I thought you wanted it immediately?" "Ummm, I can get it now?" "Yes, it's not difficult." "Ohhh, I thought there might be a line or something..." "No, not here...."

I went off in the direction he had shown me, with my umbrella since it was now raining. I walked around for about an hour and ended up making a huge circle, finding an ATM towards the end. It was a residential area, but there were grocery stores and a market. If people were spending money, surely they were withdrawing it from somewhere?

I handed over the money and they returned about 10 minutes later with my passport and receipt. In my passport there was the "visa," a stamp with my name and travel dates written in.

On the way back to the metro, I passed an ATM about 3 minutes walking distance of the Embassy.

Since it was raining, I settled for Plan B which was the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The prices posted said that a ticket cost 60 for Russians and 300 for foreigners. I handed over 500 rubles and asked for an adult ticket. "Don't you have anything smaller?" asked the little old ladies. "Ummm, I'm ummmm...not Russian," I said. "Where are you from?" "The U.S." "You don't look like it! We'll give you a discount." And they gave me back 300 rubles. I guess in Africa it will be a little harder to blend in.

I saw a lot of fine paintings at the museum. But I was sooo sleepy. I took advantage of each room that had a sitting area and took a little snooze. In the rooms that didn't have seating, I stumbled around with my eyelids fluttering.

I still had several hours until my evening train! For lack of a better idea, I took the metro to Red Square. I approached the square, but was too tired to actually walk around. Besides, they were still cleaning up from Victory Day and it didn't look very picturesque. I bought a French pastry and sat down to loiter alongside some Russian teenagers.

I got to the train station and still had THREE hours. I sat down in a waiting area and went to sleep, disregarding the rigid metal chair.

Once on the train, I was itching to get to sleep, but I didn't want to be annoying and ask my bunkmate to hurry up and climb up onto the top bunk. So I waited an hour or so until he left on his own. We arrived in St.Petersburg at 5:30 and the metro opened a few minutes later. And then another day began! I ignored my roommate's orders to go to bed, but the 2-hour commute to the orphanage gave me a chance to take a nap, and I managed to make it through the evening...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Night train to Moscow

A few months back, someone asked me if I would travel to Moscow alone (as a young woman). I said that I wouldn’t.

But now, it has become necessary. I have to visit the Congolese consulate there to get my visa to Africa.

I will be back on Wednesday, hopefully with a good report!

Currently reading

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in Kensington in 1874. He was a late developer, only reaching adolescence in his late teens, and this gave him a somewhat skewed perspective on life.

What a description! Have you ever wondered what people will write about you when you’re gone?

The quote above is from the blurb in Father Brown: selected stories (published by “Collector’s Library”), which I’m currently reading.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read fiction by Chesterton. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve read any fiction! I enjoy the humor and little snatches of Christianity. I also enjoy expanding my vocabulary, since the early 20th century British style offers a few more sophisticated words than my beginning English classes!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Victory Day

On May 9th, Russians celebrate Victory Day, the end of WWII in Europe. It is a somber holiday in light of the number of lives lost, but national celebrations are nonetheless grandiose.

On Thursday, I was in the orphanage and attended their Victory Day performance. Along with the usual music and dance, there was a play about a women's combat unit in which 5 girls became friends, and were all killed at the front. It was quite a lengthy drama in 2 parts, acted out by some orphanage graduates and directed by an elderly gentleman, himself a war veteran. All the children from 9-up sat and watched.

The end of the play featured a young descendant of one of the slain ladies talking by cell phone in the 21st century, recalling to a friend how it's important to continue to keep the memories alive.

Afterwards, the orphanage director got up and thanked the elderly theater director, tears streaming down her face.

The orphanage has a few veterans whom they've "adopted" and who go on an outing with the kids each year. It's nice to see the connection fostered between the past and the present/future. Russians do a good job of preserving memories.

This passing down of memories reminded me of what it says in the Psalter and in the historical books of the Old Testament about passing knowledge down to generations.

"Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it." -Ps. 22:30,31

"These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates." -Deut. 6:1-9

And another: "Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. " -Deut. 4:9

And there are many more examples!

What will we tell our children about what the Lord has done for us?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Russian currency

One of the aspects of culture shock (for me at least!) is dealing with a new monetary system. Perhaps it seems like a minor issue, but if you knew about my fear in the checkout line and the bags of change in a drawer, you would think differently.

In many ways, Russian currency resembles American money. There is a basic unit, the ruble, which is distributed in different quantities in coins and bills.

The coins consist of .01 ruble, .05, .10, .5, 1, 2, 5, and the occasional 10-ruble coin. The basic bills consist of 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000, and 5000-ruble notes (I’ve never dealt with anything larger).

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that 1 dollar=25 rubles (although it’s a bit less).

Now here’s the shocker: cashiers often can’t or don’t want to give you change. In fact, cashiers can dictate whether you should pay in larger bills or in itty bitty coins, based on what’s in the cash register and what the amount comes to. As they announce the bill, you start to take out certain bills, only to hear them say, “don’t you have anything smaller?” And they might even state the exact small change that would be helpful. For example, if the bill is 54.33, they might say, “do you have 4.33? Or .33? Or even 5 rubles?” That way, they won’t have to give you smaller bills. And sometimes, the situation arises when you don’t have anything smaller and the cashier doesn’t have anything smaller. And then you have a problem.

Let’s say that individual daily transactions cost under 100 rubles. Transportation: 16 or 17 rubles. A box of cookies for tea: 30 rubles. In these cases, using a 100-ruble note is okay. Or if you have to pay a few hundred rubles for groceries, using a 500 might be okay. But using a 500 in the trolleybus is not such a good idea. Sure, it might be strange to pay $20 for something that costs 50 cents. But that is what the bank gives out. In the U.S., ATMs commonly dispense $20. And that is convenient. But in Russia, $20 is a lot for a single transaction. So why does the ATM dispense that much?

It gets worse. Sometimes, all you have is (are?) 1,000 rubles. If you try to pay with a 1,000-ruble bill, you may get a cold stare and a scolding, or the cashier may even refuse initially to take it. You can however ameliorate the situation by adding some small coins to the mix. Again, 1,000 is a lot: $40. But it’s what the bank dispenses. Why do Russian banks dispense 1,000-ruble bills when even a U.S. ATM doesn’t dispense bills of that amount?

In the U.S., I can’t even recall dealing with coins. It is a total blank in my mind. The quarters and dimes used to be helpful for buying stamps or using vending machines. But now, nothing is that cheap. And I can’t recall even counting out nickels and pennies outside of Math class. I remember vaguely certain jars where I saved up coins. But what did I do with them after that?
Here, there is a completely different approach to store etiquette. In the U.S., I would never think of keeping someone waiting while counting out pennies. This is why, when I first moved to Russia, I often said “No” if asked to produce change. Although the coins do not differ so much from American currency, I felt very clumsy counting them out. I collected them in various purses and coat pockets, and later, jars. Not because I didn’t need the money, but because I hadn’t memorized the colors and shapes of different coins and had an American fear of keeping people waiting.

And so, I lived in fear of not having the correct change, or of having to count it out in front of everyone. That is, until I learned to relax a little, to plan ahead which bills and coins to have on hand, and to count change more quickly…or, as some Russians do, to reach into my pocket and produce a handful of change, from which the cashier then picks out the needed coins.

What inspired me to write this commentary was a situation that arose yesterday evening. I boarded the bus at 11 pm. We began to travel very slowly, and I was eager to get home. I also wondered why so many people were going home at 11pm on a weeknight. But then again, this is the city “that never sleeps.” The bus pulled over to the side of the road, and the conductor shouted “This isn’t a bank! Go and change your money yourself!” (This is an outburst that I hear fairly often) Then, she forced the young man off the bus so that he could go and get change. Not wanting to miss the last bus home, he shouted, “I’m leaving my things!” as he rushed off. And we sat, waiting for him to find change. The conductor announced to the rest of us that he had tried to pay for the bus ticket (a little over 1 dollar) with a 5,000-ruble bill (about 200 dollars). The rest of us groaned and rolled our eyes. A few minutes later, he was back and we were moving. I have been to the ATM before when it dispensed only 5,000 rubles, and the bank didn’t want to change it for me. So the young man wasn’t at fault, nor the conductor, who didn’t carry that much on her person. But still, it was a funny reason to be sitting by the side of the road at 11pm.

I realized later that the Christian thing to do would have been to pay for the man’s ticket. It hadn’t occurred to me. Had it occurred to any of the other passengers? Instead, I had tried to tune out the argument the minute that I began to hear the raised voices.

Monday, May 5, 2008


I have always liked the phrase, "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" from the Declaration of Independence. Ambiguous, yet it has a nice ring to it.

I'm sure that thousands of studies have been done on the topic of happiness, both scientific and theological. And with varying results. Earlier this year I read "Desiring God," by John Piper, which represents one model of a Christian pursuit of happiness.

I've tried to write about happiness here a few times, but my little problem with wordiness and the abundance of existing publicatons prompt me to be brief. I will simply note, for your interest, the results of one of many recent studies:

"The 20 happiest nations in the World are:

1. Denmark
2. Switzerland
3. Austria
4. Iceland
5. The Bahamas
6. Finland
7. Sweden
8. Bhutan
9. Brunei
10. Canada
11. Ireland
12. Luxembourg
13. Costa Rica
14. Malta
15. The Netherlands
16. Antigua and Barbuda
17. Malaysia
18. New Zealand
19. Norway
20. The Seychelles

Other notable results include:

23. USA
35. Germany
41. UK
62. France
82. China
90. Japan
125. India
167. Russia

The three least happy countries were:

176. Democratic Republic of the Congo
177. Zimbabwe
178. Burundi ."

In addition to wondering about obvious possible factors like wealth, climate, and genes, one of my questions is:

How does a culture's attitude towards self-expression play a role? For example, some cultures may consider it rude or prideful to consider oneself "satisfied." On the other hand, in another culture it may be unmannerly to say one lacks something. Why is Japan in the middle? Are the Japanese neutral about their satisfaction level?

Would a Dane ever admit that he or she were unhappy? What would it take? How about a citizen of one of those African countries down at the bottom? Would his or her life situation ever change enough to raise the happiness meter?

And what are the comparative happiness ratings of Christians in the countries surveyed?

And how would I answer such a survey? I have no idea. It's like the ambiguous "how are you?". What does that mean? How am I physically? Emotionally? How is my work? Personal life? Do I ever have the right to say I'm doing terribly, as long as someone is poorer or sadder or sicker than I am? Can I ever say I'm doing great, while there are still goals unreached or unfulfilled desires? And yet, does a neutral response respect the interest of the one inquiring?

I will sum up thus: There is always something to rejoice about. But there is always more work to be done!

I found the article here, and the original cited context is: University of Leicester. "Psychologist Produces The First-ever 'World Map Of Happiness'." ScienceDaily 14 November 2006.


I recently visited my friend Olya at her workplace. Olya is a seamstress and is making my dress for the African wedding.

Olya works really hard, and she never complains! They get paid based on how much they finish in a workday. The pretty dresses made here are sold in popular stores throughout the city. Olya worked all three of the recent days off, finishing up a big order. She and two ladies were alone in the workroom when I stopped by.

They use scary cutting machines like this one.

My dress is being made from African fabric, using an American pattern, by a Russian seamstress. Here’s a sneak preview.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


The other day I was visiting some Russian friends and the mother was really worried about dressing her child for the weather. It was hot, yet a wind could suddenly develop. The child was sweating in a hat, but without her head covered, she would surely catch a cold immediately. Finally my friend found a light bonnet that was a little small but would do the job. Saved!

Meanwhile, it has been in the 70's and sunny for the past few days. Combine that with holidays, and you can guess that Russians spent a lot of time outside. Today was the first day back at work (actually today was Friday since Friday was Sunday), and you could see a lot of people walking around with sunburns. They obviously hadn't applied sunscreen. And I wondered, why are Russians so meticulous about dressing their children, but careless about sunburns?

But at the same time, I realized that Americans are just as foreigners, I mean. I wonder what Africans are like?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Labor Day

May 1st is Labor Day in Russia. It’s an official holiday, and the government decided to mess with the calendar by switching Friday and Sunday so that Thursday, Friday and Saturday could be days off and Sunday could be a workday.

Sometimes I dislike the way that holidays disrupt everyday life. I never quite know what to do with myself. I feel guilty not working on a workday, and I’m afraid that if I relax too much, I won’t want to go back to work after the holidays. I would rather there be a steady schedule of 6 days to work and do chores, and 1 day to really REST (not 1 day when you’re “free” to do things like go to the store or cook food or do all the other things that you don’t have time to do during the rest of the week). A lot of people work a lot harder than I do, though, so I don't have much reason to complain. Perhaps God gives me these little breaks in routine so that I don't get worn out.

As it turned out, when I woke up on Thursday to beautiful weather, I was quite thankful that it was a day off. And as my plans fell through, I found myself forced to spend a day resting.

I’m currently staying with my friend Yulia, slightly outside of the city. We took a little trip to a small lake near her house. It was interesting (for lack of a better word) to pass the trash heaps on the way to our commune with Nature. Can you guess what the sign on this tree says? Hint: look at what’s lying on the ground.

We also passed the facilities where Pavlov carried out some of his animal research, tucked away in the woods. Here I am admiring a bust of Pavlov (I’m “reading” the Braille in this shot).

We lay on the beach, eating junkfood and drooling from the smell of other people’s barbecues. It was quite relaxing; a real day off.

5 years later

 After my latest  weird dream sequence , I found my mind wandering to an alternate scenario where our church never split up . I did the math...