Sunday, November 1, 2009

Driven

In Russia: Day 5

On Tuesday, we set out with Yelena’s husband. He leaves us at the second orphanage. After the visit, several Lighthouse alumni awaiting their families walk us down a wooded driveway to a nearly abandoned road, where Faith begins thumbing it. The first car down the road is a severe, two-door communist holdover; its driver stops for us. With three more bodies, we aren’t in a minute before the windows fog. I’ve never ridden in a Russian car with a sufficient defogger, so a towel is standard equipment. When we mention the fogged-over windows, our driver makes a futile attempt to reassure when he claims that in winter, he drives with only a small square of ice chipped off the windshield. The implication is if he can drive with that handicap, this one is child’s play, but the message I actually receive is that his judgment is irreparably seared. On a serpentine road slicked with driving rain, our driver takes an unseemly interest in his cell phone. The death wish Russian drivers exhibit in lane changes paralyzes me: charging up on the next car’s bumper and tailgating until oncoming traffic passes, they swerve out immediately into the opposing lane, pass, then veer back into the right lane. When you’re lucky, you’re not rounding a bend or on a hill, or both, as the stunt occurs. Time not spent praying is spent marveling there are not more crosses roadside. Faith sees I’m board-like, with bulging eyes. “Don’t look,” she counsels. Sitting in back, on a trip of unknown duration with a stranger driving who speaks no English, I’m struck by the parallel between my current predicament and the experience of the Lighthouse kids going home with their host families from distant airports after arrival. I conjure up new empathy for them, incredulous that their circumstances in Russia are so austere that such a risk becomes a good one.

Two days later, we’re at our second-to-last orphanage. We pick up Alexander, Elena, and Larisa for the trip to Moscow. They’re abuzz as they get in the car with their small cache of belongings; they’ve never before been on a train or to Moscow, they tell us. The car we’re in is a Volga; we rode in this same car, with this same driver, when we picked up our own kids from the orphanage three years ago. The recollection is sufficient to jar me as snowflakes begin their descent. With seven people now in the car, Elaine rides in front with a seatbelt and more space, though the tradeoff is a better view of the driving. Faith, the three kids, and I are crammed in the back. It’s boring at first, but the kids snap to attention as I write their names almost correctly in Cyrillic in the omnipresent fog on my window. Elena sits on my lap, and our window tic-tac-toe is a cat’s game. Midway through our trek, we pass a horrendous crash, surprisingly the first we’ve seen; there’s no way the driver could have survived. I doubt our driver takes the crash to heart, because within a mile he’s fumbling with his MP3 player in a protracted ordeal that makes me grab the front seat with one hand, and dig my nails into the door’s armrest with my other. I finally heed Faith's advice and close my eyes.
video
We stop at another orphanage, interviewing fourteen-year-old Nadia, who wears a “Jesus” necklace. She dreams of adoption and becoming a veterinarian, but her biological mother is imprisoned and must first relinquish her parental rights. Nadia wrote her yesterday, confessed she yearns for a chance at life, and begged to be released to go to America. She prays her mother will sign the document, but if she won’t, this demure girl is truly hopeless. Someone in our car is completely smitten with her, but without relinquishment papers, it hardly matters.

We pick up Dmitry, Alexander Z., Nicholas S., and Yulya at this orphanage. A van brings us all to the train station, along with the chaperone, a caretaker here. These four kids look so expectant as they board the van I suspect they don’t know there’s no host for any of them in Moscow.

At the train station, we de-van in a drizzle and meet the rest of our group: Nikolai V. and Anton, both from two previous trips, and Denis, in America last March. Denis is being adopted, but his family is here to meet another child, too. They want to see him, and Hope has been kind enough to let him join our group. Our band complete, we wait inside the station. I have been coveting a photo of the perfect babushka for my blog. I finally find her inside the station. She is heavyset, wears an ancient coat, wraps a scarf around her head, and clutches a plastic bag with one hand and a branch for a walking stick in the other. As I discuss with Elaine how to discretely snap a photo, my new camera falls hard on the terrazzo floor. I pick it up, but it’s clearly broken. Elaine lends me her camera; the memory card is full. While we fumble, the prototypical babushka slips into the darkness outside the station when her train arrives. I berate myself for missing the shot, but derive slight consolation in skirting the photographic propriety quagmire.

We cross the tracks to our platform as the light of our train approaches us too quickly for comfort. Traveling with ten kids is daunting, and is exacerbated when another train charges by on the neighboring track without stopping. It forms a deafening wind tunnel, and we race through the rain to board our car on time. Once situated, I talk Elaine’s ear off, trying to make sense of what we saw in the orphanages this trip. I have a mountain of compelling blog material, and I settle in to work when Elaine is too tired to listen further. Finding my computer’s battery is dead, I reluctantly succumb to my need for rest, and, for the first night since I left home, get more than three hours of sleep.

Morning dawns and I awaken to our train lurching into the Moscow station. We reunite with the kids and chaperone, who rode in three, four-bed compartments several cars behind us, and join the tapestry of passengers from trains arriving from far-flung reaches of Russia. Taxi drivers solicit us, but Dima, Faith’s brother, awaits us with his van. Fifteen of us scrunch in with our luggage; Dima wants to hire another cab, but Faith, the senior sibling and unfailingly frugal, overrules him and says we’ll all fit.

Combating rush hour traffic on the drive to the hotel we’ll stay at, Dima leaves us sitting in the common area since our rooms aren’t ready yet. The kids wile the time watching scandalously trashy music videos. Their chaperone seems not to notice, and I derive from this omission further motivation to get the kids out of their orphanages. Meanwhile, Dima hurries Elaine to the airport for her return flight home, and I am distraught to see her go. When Dima returns, he’ll have my host families in tow; I’m anxious to meet them. They’ve been warned this is an inaugural trip. All have agreed to be flexible, and I believe them, since they’ve already been very gracious. After forty-four trips to the United States for the Lighthouse Project, that trip is quite streamlined. But this version will be a learning experience, and statistics I take for granted at home are out the window now. Everything is new.

Everything, that is, except my prayer that in all my trips, each of the kids entrusted to me find their families.