Saturday, October 31, 2009


In Russia: Day 4

On our way to the first orphanage, we rode in the private car driven by Yelena’s husband. It is rare for Russian vehicles to have seatbelts in the back, a discomfiting fact made more disturbing by the way Russians drive. Paradoxically, our seat had a shoulder belt, but no buckle to put the clip into.

Piling into the car, translator Faith told us to hold the seatbelts across ourselves. We complied, not knowing why it mattered. We hadn’t gone far when a policeman standing in the road waved a black and white striped billy club to motion us over. While our driver went to defend himself against the accusations outside the car, Faith postulated the policeman thought we weren’t wearing seatbelts and saw our provincial driver as an easy target for money. Faith is uniquely suited for her Lighthouse Project job, and combines a shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity, almost brassiness, that defuses tense situations. Testing her hypothesis, she leaped from the car, asking the policeman why he’d targeted us. Told I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt, Faith questioned me if it had been over my shoulder. Righteously armed with my affirmative, Faith marched back to the hapless officer and warned him there were American “officials” in the car, they were wearing their seatbelts, and if he proceeded to cite us anyway, he was risking an international incident. Rather than writing a bigger ticket for that concoction, he let us go. Debriefing Faith, we roared with laughter. Us, officials?

It’s ever a mystery what Faith will do next, but we love her joie de vivre and uncanny knack for helping everything to work out right.

Friday, October 30, 2009

So Spoiled

In Russia: Day 3

In the region, we meet a lady who came once as a chaperone on my trip, and she greets me with “Becky!” and outstretched arms. In her office, she pours me tea. I’ve never drunk tea before, and doubt I’ll like it, but I say yes to be polite. It figures I end up with the largest cup, but I smile anyway, hoping my mannerly sacrifice might lead another child to a family. The first snow I’ve seen all year dusts the ground as I drain the last drop of tea from my cup, fearing it might earn me a second.

We need wheels, and Faith tries, unsuccessfully, to hail a cab. It feels like hitchhiking to me, but finally a parked car we’d been standing in front of for ten minutes takes the bait and offers a ride. Along the way, the driver and his wife Yelena share an unprompted synopsis of their lives. When they hear we’re visiting an orphanage in a certain town, Yelena asks if we know such-and-such, who once lived at said orphanage. I say yes, she went home to Michigan recently, and Yelena registers surprise, exclaiming she’d been this child’s teacher. Yelena's daughter Kristina lives in New Jersey. Kristina is shocked by the daily shipments one store has of fresh produce; odder still, things are thrown away if they don’t sell the first day. Yelena sounds scandalized as she leans forward and whispers, "I heard people in America take mortgages." Faith counters that mortgages in Russia currently carry about 17% interest. Yelena edifies, “We like to pay for what we get,” and helpfully adds, “We never borrow any money because it’s not good.” When her husband drops her off, Yelena refuses our request for a photo.

As we dash between orphanages, we eat on the run. Faith offers me a yellow Antonovka apple, native to Russia. She tells me they are tough as stones and don’t rot. She hands me half, and it’s delicious, the tartest apple I’ve tasted. My window doesn’t roll down so I hold the core. Faith offers to take it, so I reluctantly fork it over. She eyes it with disdain. “This is meat!” she chides, adding, “You’re so spoiled!” Offered a second half, I leave practically nothing this time, assuming she’ll be impressed. Reality bites when she hands me a third half, this time with the core already removed. I reminisce that the day we arrived home with our Russian children, my new son ate an entire apple. Queried as to where the apple was, my little one presented a stem. He’d eaten the apple, core, seeds, and all, as he’d been taught in the orphanage. I told him this wasn’t necessary in America; if he wanted more, he should take another one instead.

At our second orphanage stop, we meet one of my favorite chaperones from past trips. Svetlana hugs me tightly and invites us to dinner in the cafeteria. We decline, but it’s clear she wants to feed us. We finally agree, and dine on bread, cheese, tomatoes, hot chocolate milk, and plain penne pasta topped with chicken meatloaf. Disliking ground meat, I shudder at the white loaf, but my distaste turns to horror sighting the heaping mound of pickled beets topped with sour cream. Svetlana sits down with us, and explains each item. She is so kind I haven’t the heart to reject the beets, a vegetable I’ve loathed since childhood. I strategize, tackling my meatloaf first, buying time to make peace with consuming beets. When the beets’ turn comes, I eat them with purpose, opting not to linger and prolong the agony. I somehow finish, and Svetlana walks out with me arm in arm. While my stomach churns, I treasure the kindness she shows both the orphans and us.

The next day, I drink tea again at another orphanage. It’s not growing on me, but the fruit flavor in this variety marginally increases palatability. I drink it all, but a teacher, unmoved by my etiquette, gives us the coolest reception we get all trip. She’s upset since one of her orphans is not able to travel to Moscow with the Lighthouse Project this weekend. I promoted him as my favorite child but still didn’t find a host family. She is slighted by his omission from our list, and feels entitled to let us know. I leave that place with a little shiver.

Our warmest welcome comes from Boris, chaperone of my March Grand Rapids trip. Boris speaks excellent English and epitomizes warmth and sincerity. He wants us to see his children, so he leads us to a classroom where Andrei, from Elaine's July Missouri trip, sits. He announces to everyone Andrei has visitors from America, and the boy leaps to his feet, stands by his desk, and beams with pride when he sees it’s us, for him. His smile makes our trip to this orphanage to see only him worthwhile.

Boris invites us to dinner and is so insistent we would be heartless to refuse. He brings us to a storage room off the cafeteria where 40 thin mattresses are stacked beside a table. When we see the place settings and food waiting, we know it was right to stay. We eat pickled cabbage with canned peas, beef and buckwheat, bread, oranges, and bananas. Over dinner, he asks about Losha, just adopted in July. He’s hungry for news, and I promise to get an update from the family. I am touched by his concern for his 127 kids. He seems sad that the kids eat in five shifts for lack of seating.

He's delighted we’re here, and he throws open his cabinet, revealing a bottle of cognac he’s purchased for the occasion. As my teetotaling throat tightens in revulsion, my glass is filled. He makes a toast to his guests from America, and I have no choice but to take a sip. It takes my breath away, and I am nauseated instantaneously. Boris doesn’t notice. Within a few minutes, he refills Faith’s glass and reaches for mine. I croak out a still-incapacitated, “N—" but it’s too little, too late; now my glass holds more than when I started. When Boris makes another toast to our visit, I grimly realize my only out is to down the beverage in as few sips as possible. My first big gulp smacks me like a two by four, and I know there’s no way I can finish this potion. Thankfully, Boris leaves the room for a minute, and Faith lets me pour what’s left into her glass. Elaine doesn’t need an invitation and she follows my lead. When Boris returns, he’s pleased we liked our drinks well enough to finish them. We rise before he can give us a refill.

As we go, Boris apologizes in English for the fare, “I know you would have better in America, but this is the best we have. It is the same thing we feed ourselves.” I wince as he downplays his most memorable and genuine hospitality. His kindness to us and his care for his kids shames my condescending assessment of the meals we’ve been served with such warmth. He walks us to our car and gives me a gentlemanly European peck on the cheek.

Maybe Faith is right: I am blessed everywhere beyond words, too spoiled even to know it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


In Russia: Day 2

With so much to see out the window of our train compartment, I wake up feeling almost guilty for having slept through some of it. All that restrains my plunge into self-flagellation is the approaching dawn, and that the landscape was heretofore swathed in night. Haystacks shaped like mushroom caps stand sentinel across the countryside as scarved babushkas in padded coats trudge hunched beside the track, dragging wheeled wire baskets in their wakes. Cows restrained by rope tethers looped around their horns graze, not deigning to cock an eyelid in acknowledgment of the train’s din. Mothers undeterred by the October chill push buggies cradling generously swaddled tots. Pensioners dig rows of potatoes from tiny patches beside tinier houses. My favorite sight of all is an elderly fellow herding his flock of seven honking geese with a stick. I smugly note the rusted rattletraps queuing deferentially for us at railroad crossings, in a sort of automotive breadline. Seeing everything enrobed in a shroud of grungy gray sameness elicits my friend Elaine’s comment that she cannot imagine anyone smiling who must live under these conditions.

Gazing out the window, a dissonant concoction of happiness and depression wells within. These windows last framed my view three years ago, when we brought our son and daughter home. The excitement and promise of that trip to this region stokes a nostalgia that yearns to revisit every spot on that journey. Our brood doubled with two of the best souls of Russia, and I guard the memories with fierce devotion. Our joy did little to ameliorate our children’s loss, however, and in a perfect world, they would not have needed us. The love and provision they would have received from their biological parents would have kept them Russian citizens. Ideal was never reality in Russia, though, and circumstances conspired to make their loss our gain. Now my docket calls for visits to about ten orphanages in this smallish region, orphanages populated with hundreds of other children with their own chapters in the history of Russian pain and privation. Without these losses, my travel to another continent would be superfluous. All anticipation for this trip is tempered by knowledge of what necessitated it. I know today’s sightseeing will be anything but a vacation.

We arrive at our destination wrestling our bags off the train, ruing our over-packing, and assuaging our frustration since most of their contents are aid for orphans. Faith, our translator and tour guide, finds us a cab, and everything somehow fits into our Soviet-style car when our driver produces a bungee cord for the trunk and I volunteer to sit cross-legged in the back seat with one bag on the floor and another in my lap. For once, I don’t sweat the Russian propensity to forego working seatbelts. Wedged in as I am, I’m not going anywhere.

We arrive at our hotel, and my stroll down memory lane revs into overdrive. We stayed here on both our trips to Russia, and it is better appointed than most places we would pick in the United States. I open the lobby door praying the couch my kids were sitting on the moment we first met survived the hotel’s recent renovation. I breathe a relieved sigh when I find it in the same spot, choke up, and regaining my composure, point out the sacred furnishing to Elaine. I cannot stifle a detailed description of where the kids sat, and which parent first held which child where. Our room on the fourth floor plus our voluminous luggage betray my normal verve for stair climbing, so we take the elevator. Elaine and Faith hear how our junior bellhops took turns pushing the buttons every trip. They’re graciously patient with my obsession for reminiscing details, a trait I see I’ll be appreciating frequently as our mission unfolds.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sent Packing

I’m an avid traveler, priding myself on efficient packing. I depart for Russia Sunday, with plans to visit several orphanages prior to the host families’ arrival in Moscow next week. In the throes of packing now, my spatial reasoning is sorely stretched; toys, games, food, aid for the orphanages, and packages from adoptive families to their waiting children all jockey for position in my bags. While I’m never certain until I’m in country, with my travel experience, the likelihood is on any trip, I’ll have everything I should.

Seventeen children were scheduled to travel on the October-November Moscow Lighthouse Project trip. On previous trips to new areas, it is a massive effort to get people to sign up as hosts. The early stages of this trip were typically slow going, so last week seven kids, including Elena and Lidia (Hopeless?, 10/6/09), were cut for lack of families. It left ten kids, only five of whom had identified hosts. Needing several new travelers so these others would avoid the disappointment of arriving in Moscow, only to find no one waiting, I failed to convert any leads to hosts. The sign up deadline slipped by Monday, and travelers no longer have time to receive visas. I am grateful that five kids have hosts, but haunted by the equal number who don’t. The Russian government expects to send all ten, eliminating the option of further cutting. My heart aches for Yulya, Nikolai S., Alexander Z., Alexander M., and Dmitry B., without families preparing to meet them. While I despise cutting kids from trips, how I yearn now for that option, rather than bringing them, to no one.

Seven kids stay behind in their orphanages for want of a host. Five more come, equally in want of a host, but publicly exposed that no family would take a chance on meeting them. I’m missing kids, and I’m missing families. Dutifully packing my bags, conscientiously double- and triple-checking my mental list, it’s a sobering realization that no matter what else I remember, what’s most important is already left behind.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Still Waiting, Still Time

There are still four or five children in need of hosts for the Moscow Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project trip. Interested travelers have until Monday, October 19, to sign up; after that time, it will not be possible to obtain a visa quickly enough. Total cost is estimated to be about $1500 per person, assuming double occupancy, and includes airfare, lodging, all sightseeing, ground transportation, and some meals. Call Becky at (616) 245-3216 for more information.

I do not have biographical information on Alexander, age 8, which makes promotion difficult. He is in special need, as his age and orphanage location make him very vulnerable to a foster care placement within Russia. While we hope to do another Moscow trip in January, Alexander is reasonably likely to already be in foster care at that time, if he does not have a family working toward his adoption.

Dmitry, age 12, is confident, at times forgetting to wait for the translator to translate his words before continuing on. When asked when he’d entered the orphanage, he immediately gave the exact date, and said he has no regrets at being there. His hope is someone will take him and he’ll get to live with a family. He wants the family to be good, but neither too poor nor too rich. He would very much like a family with other children so they could play together.

Nikolai, age 10, is a voracious reader and would like to be a bodyguard so he can keep people safe. When he lived in a village, he helped to take care of a cow, but said he was scared of it. He enjoys sports, and likes to be the goalie when he plays soccer.

Alexander, age 10, is Nikolai's best friend. He would like to work in a factory some day, so he can produce something helpful. He also enjoys reading, and says when he took care of the same cow that Nikolai did, he was not afraid to milk it. He appreciates kind, reliable friends who don't fight.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Misery loves company, or so they say, not that shared misery has helped Elena and Lidia lately. The girls, sisters, have a story like most of the orphans who seek families with the Lighthouse Project: biological parents who put the bottle before their kids, ultimately shrugging off their parental rights rather than sobering up.

Elena, 14, and Lidia, 12, have been devastatingly close to coming to America before. Scheduled to travel to Missouri in July, an anxious family I believed would adopt them readied for their arrival. Shortly before departure, a passport issue struck them from the trip, and their host, a teacher, had summers-only availability. Since I planned they’d travel instead on my August Tulsa trip, I didn’t worry. Then the swine flu travel moratorium kept the kids in Russia. Our new “Plan C” is less ambitious: the girls stay closer to home on our October Moscow rendition of the Lighthouse Project.

Lidia, the younger, is hopeful and smiley. She likes skating, and befriends smart, kind, good girls. Asked about America, she admits she’s not heard much. The sixth grader excels in school and enjoys music class, especially when composing is on the docket.

Elena, the elder, seems more affected by her past, less willing to trust the future holds promise. In her interview, she never cracks a full smile, though she tries when Lidia joins her. She praises her friends for their understanding and helpfulness; she disdains dishonest liars. Asked what rules she would make as president, she says she’d decree drinking and smoking illegal; this is a popular orphan response. She sounds ashamed confessing that after three years of orphanage life, she’s gotten used to it. A stellar student with high marks in English, she says she wants to be a lawyer, but quickly qualifies the aspiration, “I don’t know if it will happen.”

Elena turns 15 in mid-October. As long as her younger sister remains available, Elena is eligible to enter the United States on an orphan’s immigrant visa until her eighteenth birthday. But should something render Lidia not available, Elena’s fate is sealed at sixteen, since she cannot enter the United States alone at that age. And if she’s not adopted, Elena’s more likely future is on a corner than in the courtroom. I have no leads on a host for the girls; if the trip happened tomorrow, they’d be left behind. Again.

It troubles me that so many of our Lighthouse kids have Pollyanna-like idealism bearing no resemblance to the likely future that waits in Russia. But the true travesty is Elena, with potential in spades, has aged out of her idealism, with good reason.

I never thought the world needed another lawyer before. Now, I do. Elena’s other option is much grimmer, but without a family, more likely. I recoil envisioning this sad girl forced into prostitution, and lament how impotent I am to stop it.