Saturday, December 11, 2010

For Cats

Entering Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow two days prior to our November Lighthouse Project trip, I am amazed to see crowd control stanchions separating lines at immigration. These bestow a Western sense of order, replacing the line jumping free-for-all I’ve dreaded most of my flight. The queue for bearers of electronic passports is so short I fear selecting it, but I waltz through in record time, and collect my luggage among the early bags on the carousel. In the arrivals area, a throng of taxi drivers plead, “Tahk-see? Tahk-see?” I feel a twinge of guilt in refusing them, but I’m seeking Dima. When he finds me, he grabs the carry-ons from my grateful shoulders and greets me with a polite, but scratchy, kiss. From touchdown to airport departure is a felicitous 25 minutes.

Outside, I rejoice in the chill, thankful the smoke and heat of August are relegated to miserable memory. I think I recognize Dima’s vehicle in the distance, but when we get closer, he tells me it’s new, and asks if I like it. I admit I’d seen no difference, but he smoothes it over, saying he painted it green to match his old Nissan. After depositing my bags in the back, he climbs in and turns the key in the ignition, to silence. “Sorry,” he mutters, as he springs out to swap batteries. Once the van is moving, Dima looks pained when I ask how long he’s been driving it. “Since yesterday,” he confesses, chagrined, adding it’s the best he can afford.

We are inspecting possible new lodging for our trips, visiting a tiny, well-heeled hamlet northwest of Moscow. Along the way, the only snow I’ll see the entire trip descends. Leaving Moscow’s city limits and entering the country, I peer out windows I defog with my sleeve every few minutes. As giant flakes light on birch forests lining the road, we speed through slush to a soundtrack punctuated periodically by a breathy male announcer. Everything about this ride is quintessentially Russian, and I love it more than ever on this, my eighth foray into the Motherland. After several calls to the house manager for directions, we arrive. Our host meets us with tea so hot that I recoil at my first tentative sip, splashing it on the floor. While I take the grand tour, Dima waits in the kitchen, watching his van out the window. Fearful it might not start again, he’s left it running. An hour later, when we’re driving off, the temperature inside feels more equatorial than Russian.

I’m desperately tired, but breakfast food shopping, Ashan-style, looms between me and the hotel. Gloom fills my heart as we park; the store is always grossly overcrowded and unwelcoming. As I deliberate the merits of products whose labels I hardly understand, I impede hordes who don’t bother to disguise their annoyance. Shopping for 25 souls, my cart begins to overflow, necessitating a second, then third. Dima suggests I leave the first cart by an end cap, and reclaim it when we’re done. I am profoundly hesitant to abandon my hard-won foodstuffs, but I take comfort seeing several other full carts alone. More than 30 minutes later I collect cart one, untouched, where I left it.

Back in the parking lot, the snow has changed to a hard rain. I’m hacking from a cold that sleep deprivation will not let me fight. I try to help Dima load the van, but I can tell I’m in the way again. I don’t object when he directs me to the van because I’m “coughing already.” His excuse is transparent, but I don’t care in my cold, wet stupor. I nod off on the ride to the hotel, so Dima wakes me when we’re there. I am loved by the hotel after all our stays, and staff greets me by name as I enter. The receptionist sets my key on the counter as I walk by, and I take my usual room without any of the typical hotel formalities.

After I’ve wrestled my groceries into the refrigerator, I am cooking rice for my dinner when Nancy, the lady who started our director Hope in adoption nearly twenty years ago, drops by the hotel. She’s in Russia separately, but forgot something at home, which I’ve brought for her. Now, after years of hearing about her, we meet. She says I’m “a doll” for carrying her things, though right now I look more like a drenched rat.

The next morning, my first family arrives. Melinda is meeting a four-year-old, and has to catch the train tonight to the region where we work. She treats me to lunch, then we visit the circus to buy tickets for later in the week. The saleswoman speaks no English, and I struggle to convey to her that I want our seats together. As she tires of my attempts, I give up and hope for the best. On the way out, I peruse the seat assignments, relieved to see they are grouped in two areas, rather than the hodgepodge we sometimes get.

Beggars, street musicians, and the ragged elderly selling flowers, kittens, and fruit are omnipresent as they vie for the compassion of passersby in Moscow. At the end of our August trip, returning from a late-night visit to Red Square, I witnessed a young man in the metro hunched over from kyphosis. While his condition was less grave than many beggars I’d ignored in the past, I’d scarcely bypassed him before I felt a crippling shame. I tried to salve my conscience with thoughts that our group was exhausted, and that the money I carried wasn’t really mine. But leaving him helpless haunted me, and I vowed next time to have my own money.

On the way back from the circus, Melinda and I walk the main street leading to the hotel. Up ahead, an ancient babushka, in padded coat and headscarf, perches on a folding stool, pan at her feet. Two cats robed in sweaters keep her company, one a Siamese mix, the other a lilac point Himalayan. I covet a photo in the worst way, but worry if I ask I’ll be refused. Shooting surreptitiously from the side, I am unmasked by my flash in the twilight. The lady rebukes me so vehemently no translation is required, leaving me thankful she doesn’t wield a cane. When my dressing down is over, I sheepishly step up and hand her enough rubles to guarantee my forgiveness.

I leave ashamed, both for the photo and the donation. As a veterinarian and cat-lover, I’m allowed to help a granny feed her pets. But somewhere in Moscow there’s a broken man, with years of dependency on the goodwill of strangers ahead of him, and I left him in the heat and smoke of August, alone, with nothing. Then I made my first donation into a pie tin.

For cats.





Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanks, and Giving

By Guest Blogger Stefanee, a traveler on our November 2010 Moscow Lighthouse Project Trip

It just so happens that I arrived back home from Russia the week before Thanksgiving. It seems the perfect time to relay this story, which describes not only the highlight of my trip with the Lighthouse Project, but a moment I’ll remember all my life. I find myself reliving that moment in my memory time and again, smiling to myself, so grateful that I decided to make the trip, so thankful to have witnessed what I did.

To set the stage, I’ll begin by introducing a boy named Andrei, a 13-year-old boy who traveled to Moscow unhosted. Comparatively tall with hair the color of ground nutmeg, he spent the first day largely in pleasant observation, joining in only after a few invitations and a dose of encouragement. Once engaged, he occasionally let slip a smile or the hint of a giggle, but he remained tentative and seemed to stick to the periphery.

Having been a wallflower so many times in my own childhood, I noticed him on the sidelines and tried to pay him particular attention. I motioned that I would like to photograph him (since my Russian language skills are presently primitive), and he obliged, but his discomfort became apparent as he offered a half-grin and quickly turned away as soon as the photo was taken.

Later, our group headed toward the Metro, which was packed so tightly with people that my sense of protectiveness became heightened. Some of the older kids were holding hands with each other, using a buddy system, but I saw that Andrei was without a partner. I approached him and offered my hand, and he took it out of politeness, but I could sense he felt a bit awkward; as soon as the group would stop moving he’d let go of my hand and look toward the ceiling. However, I continued to offer my hand, and he continued to accept it.

By “Day Three” in the Metro, it was Andrei who held out his hand to me. His smiles had become spontaneous – no coaxing required. He initiated interaction, joined in on games and activities, and began asking how to pronounce different words in English. As our group walked back to the hostel one night, he pointed to various objects along the street and learned how to say “fence,” “car,” “crane,” “street,” “door,” “coat,” “hat,” and a few others. The next night we walked down the same street and I was surprised to hear him recite all the words but one correctly, even “fence,” which the night before seemed the most difficult to remember. I, on the other hand, only remembered one!

The day we were meant to give gifts to the children, I wondered if I’d see Andrei truly light up – if I’d get a glimpse of him without that shadow of hesitation that, although fading, was still present. As he looked into his bag of offerings, he was pleasant and content, trying on his new sunglasses and sampling a piece of candy. He was pleased but mild-mannered as usual. I looked around the room, videotaping each child. When I looked again where Andrei had been sitting, his chair was empty. I inquired after him and was told he’d gone to his room to look at the rest of his gifts.

After an evening at the Nikulin Circus, we again made our way through the Metro. I held on to little Nikita with my right hand, and held Andrei’s hand with my left. We were walking quickly and I was determined to keep up with the group despite the fact we kept stopping briefly to manage little details like coat zippers needing to be undone. We heard a trumpeter inside the tunnel and as we approached, I let go of Andrei’s hand to reach into my pocket for spare change. Earlier that day, I had emptied my coat pockets of coins so various kids could make wishes with them, and had forgotten until that moment. Andrei understood my intent, but I motioned to him that I had nothing at the ready and we needed to keep going in order to not get too far behind the group. He smiled sweetly and we carried on.

A few minutes later we could hear a violinist in the distance, so this time I reached inside my coat and wrestled a small bill from my travel pouch. I put it into Andrei’s hand and motioned that he should offer it to the musician up ahead, but to wait until we got nearer. He pointed to himself, and then made a fiddling motion and pointed in the direction of the music. I nodded, and then noticed how happy and eager he was to do this.

The violinist was further ahead than I realized, and as the moments passed, Andrei kept trying to get her in his view – he was like a racehorse in the starting gate, waiting for the pop of the starter pistol. Finally I could see her, and gave Andrei the go-ahead to make his offering. He almost ran to her, mindful of the fact he had to do this quickly and get right back to me. He stood in front of her for a few moments, listening and appreciating her abundant talent, and then he looked over his shoulder and saw me nearing him again. His smile was, at last, completely uncontrolled, and my eyes began to well up at the beauty of it.

He put the bill in her violin case, and I saw him say to the violinist, “Spaciba” most genuinely. Did he understand her need to have earned it? Did he know that by thanking her, it may dignify her? Our language barrier kept me from asking, but it was not a moment for words, for as he pivoted to return to me, his smile spanned the full width of his face. He was almost literally beaming. He walked with such buoyancy and was so excited, it nearly took my breath away. I have never, never, seen a kid as happy as this child that stood before me. He grabbed my hand with so much gusto I turned to see if it was the same child I’d had to encourage to look toward the camera just two days before. His eyes were sparkling with joy and gratitude, the latter of which took me by surprise; but what I saw for the first time in his face was pride. It dawned on me that this may have been the first time he was able to give something to someone. He looked directly at me and said, “Spaciba. Spaciba. Spaciba.” I squeezed his hand and smiled, and as soon as he was looking forward again I began to cry. What a trio we were: Nikita, singing and skipping along like a mini Willy Wonka, Andrei, smiling so big I could see all of his teeth, and I, simultaneously smiling and letting about a gallon of tears soak the top of my turtleneck.

All I could think was, Here is a child who has next to nothing. Yet his joy was not found in the getting, but in the giving.

My heart swells every time I think of it. I am so thankful I was there, in that moment, with Andrei. I love that such an important reminder came to me through the actions of this beautiful boy: Joy is found in giving.


***
Stefanee enthusiastically traveled with our program earlier this month, and feels the trip changed her life forever.  She is an editor, and lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mouths of Babes

Victoria’s smile revealed she was missing her two front teeth, and she spoke with a lisp as she answered her questioner without a hint of shyness. For a young seven-year-old, she was unusually open, sang without cajoling, and was a most engaging interview subject. The first grader likes her teacher and loves school. Russian schools value memorization of poetry, and most interviews of young children feature at least one recitation; praised by the interviewer after her first poem, Victoria clapped for herself, and launched headlong into a second. Asked about a new friend, Victoria puzzled a moment, and then confessed she didn’t remember her name. Ironically, she wore a shirt emblazoned with a drawing of an elephant and the cryptic English words, “Don’t want to forget me am an elephant.” As the interview was ending, she neatened her pigtails in preparation for photos the interviewer would take.

After Victoria’s turn, her sister Alexandra, nine, arrived back at the orphanage from school, where she’s in second grade. Asked what subjects she liked, she rattled off painting, reading, math, and Russian language without an instant’s hesitation. At her orphanage’s library, she checks out books of fairy tales. She likes watching Chip and Dale cartoons and playing. Several of the orphanages where we work have animals; Alexandra enjoys feeding the dogs and kittens at hers. She easily remembered her best friend, sister Victoria. During free time at school or the orphanage, they visit together. Alexandra added it’s her pleasure to help Victoria when she needs it. As her interviewer translated this, Alexandra smiled sweetly.

The girls arrived at the orphanage a few months ago, after their biological mother’s rights were terminated. At the court hearing which effected this deprival, their mother did not show up to contest allegations of neglect, nor did she trouble herself to inform the court that she would be absent.

As is too frequently the situation with the kids we serve, the one who should have cared most for the girls did not care enough to fight to keep them. So in an orphanage without their mother, little Alexandra does what she can to help her littler sister, only too pleased she has the chance.

*****
Alexandra and Victoria are able to travel on our November 9-15 Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow, provided they have a host family within the next few days.   For more information on the trip, these girls, or other children, please call Becky at (616) 245-3216 this week.



Sunday, October 17, 2010

They Have to Love Children

A wet snow descended at the close of our three days visiting orphanages. During the drive, Faith briefed me on a sibling trio she’d promised to help find a family for ages ago. We were coming to visit them, to do a picture retake of another sibling group, and to collect three kids for our first reverse Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow. School was history for the week, and as Faith opened the orphanage door, music pounding in celebration slapped us in the face. Kids spilled out into the hallway from several rooms to see us; several I recognized from old interviews I’d watched.

There was more protocol to suffer here than at some places we visited, as the staff graciously insisted on feeding us first. We had sated our appetites on the way, though a bulging stomach was least of my objections when tepid chicken soup awash in fat was set before me. I scarcely had time to resign myself to the greasy atrocity when an ante-upping plate appeared: a pickle and tomato, both steaming, paired with chilled mashed potatoes and still-scaled herring. It felt immoral to discard meat, lest an animal perish in vain, but the fish’s odor, aesthetics, and temperature worked wonders for my powers of rationalization. When our server briefly excused herself, Faith, eyeing the fish banished to the side of my plate, swapped her scales for my herring, salving my conscience in one deft exchange.

Formalities mercifully over, a parade of children entered. Those awaiting their families’ arrival appeared with confident smiles, lavishing hugs of recognition upon us. Others, not yet slated for a trip, made more circumspect entrances. One girl, leaving with us this afternoon, was Larisa, ten. The elfin brunette piqued my interest during an earlier interview, allowing of school only that she liked it “better than being in the hospital” while paradoxically aspiring to a nursing career. She defied anyone to dislike her, and finding a host for her on our trip was a cinch.

Now in Russia, waiting to meet her in person, we learned she had a sibling, of whom we’d been unaware.

Larisa bounced carefree into the room, leaving sister Maria, 13, her pensive shadow. As we spoke with her, Maria warmed up, but remained decorous. Interview basics were addressed: favorite subjects, music and physical education; preferred seasons, summer and winter; hobbies, crocheting and reading; and career hope, medicine. Her dream was a good family, thoughtfully defined as one where parents love children. She “certainly” believed in God, and affirmed God loves her, editorializing, “He loves everyone.” Larisa’s characterization of Maria as strict elicited a chuckle from Maria, and a swift addendum from Larisa that it helped her. My friend Elaine asked how long they’d been here. “One year,” Maria answered, alluding to how momentous their arrival was by giving its exact date.

After our meeting, Larisa left to collect her things for Moscow. While I liked Maria’s dignified charm, I knew her existence would shock the host, who was leaving the States in a few hours, oblivious that a second child would also need to be adopted. With Maria unable to travel with us, it would reduce the girls’ chance of being adopted this trip. Watching Larisa through the window as she returned with her bag, it was devastating to know we’d unintentionally failed to give either girl her best opportunity.

Several interviews later, we departed the orphanage, three kids in tow. With five of us wedged in the backseat, we sought respite from our boredom by playing tic-tac-toe in the window’s fog. As he glared at us in his rearview mirror, I suspected our entertainment choice displeased our chauffeur. But as his reckless driving risked seven lives, our window game seemed minimal recompense. One last orphanage stop killed time and dished up a few more interviews. As she waited for us to finish, Larisa mixed effortlessly with the kids she met there. When we left, four children richer, an orphanage van whisked us to the train station in a joyously forgettable ride.

We reached our Moscow hotel before the families. When they arrived from the airport in early afternoon, I spoke with Larisa’s host. While her magnanimous understanding of our discovery of Maria was a boon to my stress level, she doubted any second child, particularly one she couldn’t meet, would fit her family.

As our visit unfolded, Larisa smiled generously. She knew some English, with a hearty appetite for more. She shepherded the trip’s two youngest children, and accepted guidance from an older child who criticized minor shortcomings in her behavior. Asking a host parent if she was adopting two other children on the trip, the affirmative answer brought Larisa genuine happiness. Still, she retained her own painfully obvious desire to be adopted, as she shooed away kids who wanted to hold her host mom’s hand. The day we departed Moscow, another child gave Larisa’s host a heart-shaped "I love you" pin, complete with blinking red lights. Larisa’s efforts to convey that the garish pin was from her, too, were heart-rending in their desperation.

When we left Moscow, every family had chosen a child for adoption; Larisa, twinkle in her eye, was not among those picked. Twice since, she and Maria have been selected by families, only to have both families back out before even meeting the girls. The last few weeks, whenever Lighthouse Project director Hope and I discuss kids for future trips, she tells me Larisa and Maria still very much want a family.

I appreciate the reminder, but don’t need it. I remember the request.

They have to love children.




Sunday, September 26, 2010

Angelic

Mid-March, toward the end of recruiting, four unusually young children were added to my end-of-month Moscow trip. One of them, five-year-old Artem, came without details beyond his orphanage director’s glowing verbal report. With his age, sandy curls, and personality, his only salvation from Russian foster care was his HIV-positive status. His biological mother shared her disease, not her life, with him, and lost custody through her neglect of his medical needs.

I promoted Artem, but insufficient time, scanty information, and his diagnosis conspired against him. When I left for Russia, he was destined to travel without a host family; still, his presence provided me the opportunity to formulate an impression of him.

When the kids arrived, his small stature surprised me, though Russian orphans are generally small for their age. Artem was delightful, a standout in attitude, intelligence, attentiveness, cooperation, kindness, and industry. Cuddly too, he loved sitting on the lap of a lady who had taken a shine to him, but when it was another child’s turn, he would work diligently at different activities. Young enough to seem genuine, I never sensed his exemplary behavior was a show for the benefit of potential adoptive parents.

One day, as we presented the kids their gifts, cherubic Artem beamed, thanking me unprompted with a joy-filled, “Spaciba!” His stoop from the weight of the bagged treasures on his shoulder demanded a photo; instead, when I asked him, the little tyke with great effort straightened tall for me. Photo formalities over, he dragged his bag behind him to his room for safekeeping.

He personified persistence; on our long walks, he marched along, never complaining. With the common room a frenzy of activity, Artem worked solo on a puzzle, rotating the pieces to attempt all possibilities. Occasionally other kids flitted by to help, but never stayed. Artem showed no resentment at their late coming, or early going. Even when a girl capriciously destroyed the nearly-completed puzzle, Artem neither groused nor retaliated. He just started over.

During my days with him, I thought repeatedly that, were I to design the perfect child, Artem would result.  Yet he remained a little boy, on the lookout for puddles and whispering in ears when he had something to say.  One lady decided to pursue his adoption, though circumstances months later precluded her from proceeding, an outcome over which she shed countless tears. 

Much later, I viewed Artem’s orphanage interview. Unlike most interviewees his age, he was talkative, responding readily to questions. Asked his name, he offered his nickname, Toma. Noting he was anxious to begin school, he counted several numbers between one and ten and identified the colors of his sweater’s stripes. Queried about his hopes, he wanted a mama, a papa, and several different toy vehicles, in that order. Naming his hometown, he added he’d waited for his mother at the orphanage there and she “never, ever” came for him.

So Artem, an angel in orphan’s clothes, awaits someone else to come for him, someone whose education about his condition trumps unfounded fear and prejudice (Positive, 3/18/10). His HIV status made him an orphan.

May it not leave him one.

***

For more information on adopting HIV-positive children, please visit Project Hopeful.  Adoptive families of HIV-positive children are willing to speak to others about their experience with the condition; names and numbers will be provided.   The prognosis is much more favorable, and treatment much less involved, than most people believe.  Families interested in Artem may meet him on our November 9-15 trip to Moscow.  If you're interested in travelling with us, please call Becky at (616) 245-3216 or e-mail becky@lhproject.com.


Yuliana, Artem, and Yana




Friday, September 24, 2010

Going With Them

Day three of the kids’ visit, my little band lacks the ambition of the first day and the urgency of the last. While I am gung-ho to show them more of the city, yesterday was a gumption-robbing scorcher, and today is a carbon copy. The families opt to stay in climate-controlled comfort with the kids, but after our late laugh last night, we Americans arrive at the kids’ flat almost an hour later than planned.

We’re throwing a party, and since it’s no one’s birthday, we pretend it’s everyone’s. In a departure-eve tradition at my house, my Russian son measures out streamers twice the length of our playroom and rolls them up as I finalize my packing. He enjoys surprising me with the color, and it lets him do something to help “the Russian kids,” as he calls them. Russian ceilings tower, and hanging my son’s streamers high enough always proves challenging. The festivity gauge rises sharply when I give the kids balloons; soon some joust with inflatable swords, some decorate the flat, and others fashion gaudy headwear for the partygoers.

Svetlana, the chaperone, is polite, but not exactly jovial. She’s claimed several times this week the kids aren’t interested in things they’re yanking my arms for, ensured the television drones endlessly, and made clear that on this, her inaugural visit to Moscow, the only thing she cares if she sees is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. When she accepts and dons a hat designed by one of our budding haberdashers, I extend shocked and silent kudos, as it would hurt my heart to see an orphan’s generosity rebuffed.

As the festive melee unfolds, I pour over two bird’s milk cakes. I expect to write “Happy Birthday” and the kids’ names in Cyrillic, but the tubes of frosting I’ve brought are almost pathologically uncooperative. Before I get to the end of “Happy Birthday,” I’m lamenting the beautiful vision in my mind is destined to remain only that, until Zulya comes to look, hugs me, and proclaims it beautiful. I recognize her word in Russian, and the delivery is so genuine I can tell she means it. I think it strange that her single word agitates a flurry of emotions within me. I cherish her encouragement, but find it sad commentary that my eyesore of a cake is lovely to her. It highlights why we have a party when it’s no one’s birthday, and even why we run these trips: the kids have been denied most things we assume are birthrights of childhood.

I plant Hanukkah candles on the cake. They were on clearance, and I can’t resist a bargain. As a bonus, they’re more substantive than ordinary birthday candles. We always sing “Happy Birthday” several times for our videos, and shoot enough photos to shame paparazzi; ordinary candles cannot withstand such delay. As the candles burn brightly through all the pictures and songs, no one suspects that they’re not officially birthday candles.

During my first Russian party, I learned to set aside one cake for the kids to blow on and eat, reserving another cake for those favoring dessert unsullied by spittle. After English and marginal Russian renditions of the birthday song, the candles are extinguished by eight kids blowing in near-unison, and the cake is cut. Each child’s piece sports a candle, which we relight to their jubilation. As some kids eat around the flame with shaky hands, and others wield theirs, I wonder what we’d be charged for burning down the flat.

After cake, it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey time. The kids haven’t played it before, though you’d never know by the skill with which they cheat: only two don’t grope the wall before committing their tails. Even the translator and chaperone feel around. For a low-stakes party game without a prize, the depth of my indignation surprises me. At the end, having no photo, I pick Alexandra, a non-cheater, to reenact the game. She now pats the wall, too, having modified her strategy while watching the others. We Americans play afterward, demonstrating how it’s done. None of us cheat, and the kids laugh like we’re the greenhorns.

A boulevard outside the flat offers a tree-lined walk down the center, with a playground near one end. After the party and lunch, we lug a watermelon and freezer pops to the playground, availing ourselves of a thousand photo ops the kids create. Oleg bats as Jeff pitches him a baseball, Alexandra sits on a slide with Barrie and Joyce, Sergei and Andrei look at pictures, and Zulya and Lora throw a Frisbee. A man and his tiny daughter walk by. The little one is fascinated by the Frisbee, so Zulya squats down, shows her the disc, tries to help her throw it, and speaks gently to her. For a child on the receiving end of so little nurture in her life, it is heartwarming to see how naturally Zulya doles it out.

At the park, translator Irina summons Alexandra; Barrie and Joyce want to talk with her. As she sits beside them on a bench, they tell her she’s beautiful, they love her, and they want her to be their daughter. They flip together through an album with pictures of their family, home, and their son Trevor with a boy he’s adopting from our March trip. Presenting her a necklace with a cross pendant, Joyce shows Alexandra a similar necklace she received from her mom. Alexandra says she likes Barrie and Joyce, but isn’t sure about adoption. That’s okay, they counsel. They want her to consider it, to be sure.

As the rest of the kids play on, oblivious to the momentous discussion near them, I slice the watermelon with a knife I thought twice about carrying down the street. Russians are proud of the watermelons they call “ar-BOOSE.” Since this is my first summer trip, it’s my first taste. Their pride is justifiable, and the watermelon is a most apt treat on this sweltering, but gloriously smoke-free, afternoon.

At night, when I’m unwinding back in my room, Barrie and Joyce knock on my bag door, wanting to talk. They have been trip stalwarts, unfailingly upbeat whether or not circumstances warrant. Having them along has been unmitigated pleasure. They touch me by opening with effusive thanks, then one-up themselves with the tale of their conversation with Alexandra at the park. Later at the flat, Irina tells Joyce Alexandra wants to join their family, but is too shy to tell them. Weeping, Joyce invites Barrie to meet his new daughter. It’s impossible to contain his emotion as he promises Alexandra his lifelong love and protection. He adds, just to me, that he was warned adoption was pricey.  He understands, but invoking the "you can't take it with you" expression, counters that they can take their kids with them someday.

So in a humble room, behind a makeshift trash bag door, I learn the joyous tidings that Alexandra, the first orphan I ever interviewed, has a family, and one I esteem (Mission: Never Accomplished, 2/10/10). As Barrie and Joyce thank me again for helping them find their daughter, it’s worth a hug and a tear. Or two.

Alexandra is going with them.




Sunday, September 19, 2010

Looking Up

Without air conditioning, our windows are constantly open. We wake to smoke less punishing, thanks to an overnight shower and the prayers of many back home. We walk to the kids’ flat; several run to let us in when we buzz the bell outside their building. Having sacrificed the air conditioned accommodations for them, it is mildly annoying to find the unit turned off as we enter.

After breakfast, a game helps us get to know each other better. When a yellow beach ball is caught, the recipient shares a fact about himself, then tosses the ball to someone of opposite nationality. Through the passing of the ball, we learn Egor is the best reader in his class, Alexandra dances, and Oleg likes English. We’re in a circle, and Angelina’s the only one sitting. Once, I throw her the ball as encouragement that we want to know her, too. She pushes it away, looks down, and won’t say anything, even with Svetlana’s cajoling. It’s slightly awkward, and while I wonder if we should try harder to coax her participation, I acquiesce to her choice.

Angelina travelled unhosted in January (Scared, 12/21/09). The last day of the trip, we interviewed the kids; toward the end, she had yet to speak. Faith gently probed about what she’d most enjoyed, and got three or four words in response before a very charming boy started laughing, interjecting a snide comment. Angelina clammed up, not willing to finish her thought. It vexed me that the charmer, family safely in pocket, heartlessly mocked the shy girl. As Angelina refuses participation, I feel sure she remembers the January experience, and I must work to suppress resentment toward the boy whose long-past thoughtlessness denies her a chance to shine now.

Gifts are distributed next, to the glee of all. Few here have received many before, unless they’ve traveled with us previously. Lora is an astute trader, making several beneficial swaps before a few of the hosts intervene. When our group sets out for the day, the boys pose by a red Ferrari parked in the courtyard outside their flat. As its owner has carefully tucked it in a corner by an adjacent building, I doubt he would approve of several children leaning against it for photos.

At the metro, my magnetic ticket allows us sixty rides, the least expensive option for short-term visitors. Before we’re in the door, the kids clamor to scan the strip on the card reader. It’s already hard to remember who has had a turn, and who hasn’t. As I watch a child scan the card, I worry it won’t read between entrants, and that the gate will slam closed on the unwitting second to pass, assuring its victim multiple bruises. The metro resounds with a loud, singsongy tune whenever able-bodied cheaters jump the gate. Cheerless women wearing sour, no-nonsense expressions man booths nearby, blowing police whistles as they menacingly, but impotently, jab the air at the freeloaders.

We emerge from underground by the Kremlin, stopping at a bronze plaque embedded in the stone outside the Resurrection Gate, my favorite entrance to Red Square. Popular culture considers this spot the center of Russia, though geographically that title belongs almost 3000 miles east. With their backs to Red Square, people stand on the plaque, tossing coins over their right shoulders for luck. The coins are generally kopeks, tiny denominations valued in hundredths of a cent, but a few tattered elderly ladies hover nearby, collecting the coins with frail fingers as they bounce off the stones.

Right before departure, I’d seen several horrifying photos of Red Square shrouded in smoke, just the outline of St. Basil’s visible. Today, though, with much of the smoke dissipating, I’m absent my mask, no longer fighting carbon monoxide reputed to have been as high as seven times the safe upper limit earlier in our jaunt. For my friends’ sakes, I am relieved that their first view of Moscow’s most iconic site is fairly clear. After the requisite photos with St. Basil’s as backdrop, we grab lunch at my favorite GUM Mall eatery, dining amidst a smorgasbord of color. Every time I visit GUM, there is a new, and unfailingly classy, display of decorations or artifacts; today Audis from the 1930s to the present form a car snake through the mall’s corridors. A man sits in one, and lets the kids join him. He demonstrates the GPS, a gadget the kids find irresistible. The man is so accommodating that I assume he is either not Russian, or not working for the vehicle’s owner. I keep waiting for the ubiquitous mall security officers to descend on us, rebuking and shooing us away, but they never materialize.

After GUM, we cruise the Moscow River. It’s sweltering out, though a breeze on the river provides a modicum of relief. I spring for ice cream, and most kids thank me without prompting, though I remind a few. It’s refreshing how many of the kids, orphans, remember this pleasantry, even in English. I wile away much of the ride chatting on the phone with my friend Valerie, our adoption coordinator. She calls me with encouragement daily here; I love her, and almost forget my troubles as she commiserates with me.

Cruise over, we return to the kids’ flat to prepare dinner. As we assemble the components, Lora proudly contributes the four leftover McDonald’s cheeseburgers she’d collected yesterday and stored in her bag overnight. She is appalled when I throw them away, telling her we can’t use them, since meat needs to be refrigerated. Krista brought macaroni and cheese from home, and I have pelmini, Russian ravioli served with sour cream. Kids commonly name macaroni as their favorite food, but it is eaten sans sauce here. When Krista mentions American kids love macaroni and cheese, the Russians eat it with extra gusto. Cucumber slices and plums languished earlier, but fashioned into a smiley face on a plate, they’re promptly devoured. After the meal, we’re tired. I feel guilty leaving, but the heat has sapped our strength.

Traipsing back to our own flat, someone remembers we need toilet paper. At a store open day and night, shopping reminds me of a book I read about marketing; in a phenomenon they called “the butt brush effect,” the authors claimed customers would stop browsing in an area the third time they were bumped from behind. Here, in aisles wide enough for only one person, I’m thinking the butt brush threshold would have to be higher. The inventory consists of expensive blue paper, or abrasive brown Soviet-holdout paper, sold singly for about twelve cents per roll. Back at the flat, exhaustion lowers inhibitions as we envision how we would advertise the rough paper, were we the ad agency charged with such an unenviable assignment. We settle on, “Your butt might feel it, but your wallet won’t!” and laugh uproariously until I feel lightheaded.

My room is really an office next to the kitchen, and it lacks a door. The location teems with distractions, and renders blogging impossible. While I’m on the phone, Jeff cobbles together nine wimpy trash bags into a makeshift door. Before I hang up, the thin blue plastic offers some semblance of privacy. Krista decorates it with my name, but I can’t decide if I should be honored or offended by the crown she draws atop the “B.”

By the time my lights go out, a fifteen-minute rainstorm has begun and ended. A stiff breeze is blowing through, and I reach for the duvet. With a cleansing rain, the welcome chill, my bag door, the hearty laughing session, and the prayers of those who love me at home, things are looking up.

I'm going to make it.




Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Moving Day

Our hotel stands in the shadow of one of Stalin’s seven skyscrapers, a monstrosity at once repulsive and appealing. I identify this landmark for my travelers every trip as a reference point, should they venture out alone. This morning, as we leave for the train station to meet the kids, the wicked smoke obscures its tower, and I wonder if it’s still standing.

In a nod to my neuroses, I always allow an exorbitant amount of travel time to get to the train station. We leave quasi-punctually, though one host makes a mad dash back to the hotel for forgotten passports. The heat makes his sprint torture, but he reunites with the group just as we reach the metro to find the doors locked. A note on the door presumably provides explanation, though with my skimpy Russian, it’s academic. Worrying how to get to the kids’ station when the one way I know is closed, I utter an urgent prayer, turn, and walk away with sham nonchalance. Immediate inspiration comes in my sighting of the underpass spanning the ten-lane road beside us. Since most metro stations have entrances on both sides of busy thoroughfares, I cross under the road, leaving my fears unspoken. When the doors to this entrance open, I know how Moses felt at the parting of the Red Sea. The rest of our trip is uneventful, and we have time for a photo below a clock showing two minutes before the train is due.

The train pulls in as we’re finishing, and we walk nearly to the end before we find the kids standing outside their car waiting. I am masked, but shed it when I notice the kids eyeing me strangely. Angelina, ten, from the January trip, gives me a huge embrace; with her shyness, her hug surprises and delights me. Egor spots the family he met in Missouri last year. His wait is nearly over, as they’ve been assigned a court date in mid-September, but they wanted to see him again. He stands there staring, disbelieving. When mom-to-be Teresa approaches him, touches her heart, then his, he breaks down in tears. Alexandra, fourteen, sees Joyce returned from the June trip, auspiciously this time with husband Barrie. Krista is meeting Zulya and Lora. Two weeks ago, when first we spoke, she didn’t hold a valid passport; now she’s with us, halfway around the globe. Her commitment is breathtaking to fathom, and I’m hoping she finds the visit worthy of her effort.

Oleg and Andrei are unhosted, and they’re here for my assessment if they’re good candidates for adoption. I’d met them briefly at their orphanage, and thought them promising enough to warrant this step. Angelina is hostless, too, and I’ve violated my policy of not bringing an unhosted child twice by bringing her now. Since I already know and like her, she has little to gain here. Extenuating circumstances led me to break this rule, and I am praying I don’t break her heart.

Leaving the train, I distribute masks to everyone but never see them used. Back at the hotel, I’m figuring out if they will refund our money, if Hope has our flats booked, if Love knows when we can get the keys, if Dima can bring sleeping bags, and when he’ll move our copious luggage. It’s frazzling with too many questions and everyone waiting, so the hosts help out with the kids’ breakfast. The lady I need to speak with won’t be here until eleven, so after breakfast, the kids and families go outside to throw water balloons, a fitting hot weather ice breaker. Courageous hosts lend the kids their cameras, while Teresa works to get a good photo of Angelina. By trip’s end, the little girl, so sparing with smiles, has a portfolio demonstrating a metamorphosis from our October to January to August meetings (Scared, 12/21/09).

I aim to sandwich a Moscow River cruise between our lunch and move, but as the wait for the employee drags on, I’m seeing the families’ first day with the kids frittered away behind a hotel. At 12:30 p.m., too late for our boat ride, she finally appears, apologizing as she declines my refund request.

At last we leave for McDonald’s, Oleg holding my hand. Soon he is dragging me, and as we fall behind, I start hyperventilating behind my mask. I close my eyes and let Oleg, gentler now, lead me. Translator Irina and chaperone Svetlana see this and ask if I’m okay, demanding it when I ignore them. Svetlana digs into her purse, where she stores a mini-pharmacy she now attacks with the vengeance of a paramedic on call. Dousing a cotton ball with a pungent potion from a brown glass bottle, she holds it under my nose. I am immediately alert, incredulous that the bottle’s contents hold their own against the stench of the smoke. When she’s satisfied I’m better she proffers the cotton, issuing orders in Russian to sniff it. Irina sacrifices her water, which I guzzle. From up ahead, Zulya notices I’m lagging, and she insists the group wait. When I catch up, the cotton’s powers and the water have revived me, and I feel peachy, except for a stout headache.

After lunch, we meet Dima back at the hotel and pile our luggage into his van. Next, we find Love, who now has the keys for both flats. She greets me with an embrace to soften a bombshell. “Only one flat is air conditioned,” she moans. My mind refuses this. I hate her cruel joke, but she wails she’s serious. The heat alone makes it distressing, but realizing I’ve moved sixteen people to an unpaid-for place, wasted all day doing it, and crushed hopes of salvation in the process catapults my horror to the stratospheric. Love asks which flat I want. It feels selfish consigning the kids to a hot, smoky place, but I don’t relish telling the families they’ve moved for naught, either. Finally, not knowing which flat has the air conditioner, I opt to house the kids, who need more space with ten in their group, in the larger flat.

In updates prefacing the trip I caution families to expect inconvenience in Russia. The flat charade is maddeningly typical, leaving me grateful I’d issued the warnings. When my despondency fades, I grudgingly realize the families derive cultural value from the episode as a quintessential Russian experience. Still, the owner’s lame defense, a repairman removed the appliance and never returned it, seems delivered with almost criminally minimal self-flagellation.

Entering the kids’ place, a cool breeze hits me, leaving me comfortless, knowing we’ll get the hot flat. Their flat is beautifully maintained and modern. When the kids are settled, we venture with heavy hearts to our place, about one mile away, literally around the corner from the Kremlin. If we weren’t here to spend time with the kids, the location would be stellar, in the nerve center of Moscow. Our flat is toasty, but bordering bearable, on the building’s sixth floor. Each party has private space, and while air conditioning isn’t included, free international phone calls are.

Dropping our bags inside, we scurry back to the kids’ flat; freshening up would be futile. We redeem our rat race of a day at the circus, arriving late, as usual. A stir ensues as we block the aisles while the usher goads people planted in our seats to move. This production is made laudable by her persistence, even if it deeply annoys those whose view we obstruct at length. After the show, the kids are abuzz over the tigers. Mirroring every trip, they point to plastic trinkets as we exit, vainly hoping we’ll buy.

When I stumble into my shared home, it’s late, but I spend hours talking with my friends, enjoying the luxury of free calls. My last is to fellow Lighthouse Project coordinator Elaine.   As I unload my woes in a diatribe taking thirty minutes, she makes no comment. When I finish, she offers no acknowledgment; finally, I realize she’s not there. I find the exercise a strange balm, even without an audience. Later, she tells me all she heard was “Hello.”

The windows of our rooms are well situated, and a decent, if stinky, breeze wafts through the flat. As I drift off to dream world on a fold-out loveseat, today seems a loss. With three days left, I hope the rest of the trip looks up, and that hearts can be won in the compacted time remaining.




Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hope

Last night I’d heroically determined not to complain, no matter the circumstances here. At 6 a.m. Sunday, my resolve nosedives as I awaken to find my mask, which I’d slept in, conspiring with the smoke to smother me with breath-robbing vengeance. I vault coughing from bed in a fresh panic, maddeningly stranded in this acrid inferno. My planned Friday departure, one day closer, leaves me comfortless, as I cannot survive that long. I pound out a frantic e-mail missive to our director, Hope. My life, or at least my sanity, is in jeopardy, and my opening sentences ooze agony. But in typing, my outlook improves, as focusing elsewhere shaves the edge off my misery. This knowledge is power; my survival strategy becomes cramming every moment with activity.

In summertime, Moscow shuts off the hot water by sections of the city to fix their ancient pipes. For years I’d fretted that some yet-unplanned summer trip to Moscow might plunk me in lodging bereft of hot water, unable to take a comfortable shower. Now that I’m here on an August jaunt, wilting in temperatures better suited to saunas than Russia, I realize my fears are unfounded and unrealistic. By the time my host families arise at 11 a.m., I’m a veteran of two cold showers taken in a futile attempt at cooling.

Across town, Oklahomans Jeff and Robin are in the waning days of their month-long adoption journey, picking up fourteen-year-old Edik, alumni of one of my previous trips. They’d been staying with our Russian adoption coordinator, Love, and had spent their recent days rotating through the shower. Love’s two Persians lie pathetically motionless except for their panting until Jeff compassionately helps her trim their fluff, resuscitating them. Three days before departure, Jeff and Robin can suffer the heat and smoke no longer. They move to a very posh hotel offering a pool and air conditioning. Love is thrilled to escape the heat when they rent a room for her and the cats, too.

Early Sunday afternoon Jeff calls me, hoping to see me and my little band. It’s been a long stay in Russia, and they’re hungry for American company. When my last hosts, Iowans Barrie and Joyce, arrive, we have little incentive to remain at our hotel. We leave to meet Jeff, Robin, Edik, and Love at a KFC-owned chicken outfit, but the plan is scuttled when the restaurant proves hotter than the streets. We migrate next door to Il Patio, reputed to be Moscow’s only authentic pizza. Inside, the cool, clean air brings me to the brink of elated tears, exacerbated by the sight of Jeff and Robin, now parents. I sit next to Edik; the last time I saw him, he was in his orphanage, confessing fear over whether his new family would really come for him. As Edik calls Robin “Mama,” requesting permission for this and that, I revel in the quotidian domesticity of the scene. Gatherings of adoptive families invigorate me as our commonalities engender almost endless conversation, and we linger long after our food is gone.

Jeff and Robin invite us to their hotel; in this heat, we won’t make them ask twice. Conversing in temperature-controlled bliss, they detail how their adoption of Edik was approved by a regional supreme court judge. One of the host families, Jeff and Teresa of Michigan, has a court date scheduled for mid-September, and they listen with especially rapt attention. In the hotel room, there’s no hint of smoke, and I relish the sensation of almost being cold. When both Jeffs and Edik leave to swim, Robin and the host moms browse in a hotel gift shop, studying every item. I hate shopping and tire of the wait, so I visit Love’s room to see the cats. She apologizes for their appearance, but their haircuts are so hideous they’re irresistible. For both man and beast, appearance plays second fiddle to comfort this week, and I hardly begrudge the cats their trims. Love notices I am tired, and when she orders me to lie down on the spare bed, I make no argument. I sink into the duvet, my form cradled by pillows as prolific as rabbits; once lying there I feel little inclination toward activity. As I lounge, Love bids me in her charming English to spend the night here, rather than at my hotel, urging, “Becky, you must stay!” Cursing my scruples which mandate I suffer in solidarity with my host families, I snuggle further into the bed, and it takes every moral I can muster to refuse her offer.

When the swimmers and shoppers reappear, I drag myself from the bed to go home. While we have spent over seven hours in cool luxury, the sickening heat outside at once relegates it all to a bitter memory. Back at our hotel, we are demoralized finding it even hotter than outdoors. Retreating to my room, I have a sympathetic message from Hope, providing a modicum of encouragement. She offers to move us to an air conditioned hotel, but I am resistant in my tightwaddery, as this one is paid for already. Later, my friend Valerie, our US adoption coordinator, calls to say Hope is insistent we move. It’s past midnight here, too late to ask the families now what they want. I tell Valerie we have to wait until Monday to decide this, but she worries the less expensive hotels will be booked as there are few rooms left in Moscow; even flights and trains out of the capital are sold out.

I emerge from my room for another shower and instead discover all the hosts in the common area, flush-faced and too hot to sleep. I call a meeting, which Barrie and Joyce host. Detailing the pros and cons of moving to an air conditioned hotel, the pros have a grossly unfair advantage. The consensus is that we should move, pending the hotel’s willingness to refund our money. In Russia, where the operating premise of every business seems to be “the customer is always wrong,” even a partial refund is in grievous doubt. I leave the meeting to speak to a receptionist sitting at the front desk by what I’d been told was the hotel’s only fan. When I reveal we’re contemplating leaving due to the nearly insufferable conditions, two fans miraculously appear from under the counter. They’re tiny and tired, but I return to my families triumphant. That there are four rooms and two fans only mildly tarnishes my glee. As trip coordinator, I cannot co-opt a fan, but nobody else is selfish, either. A good-natured argument ensues, each host claiming their need of a fan is less urgent than the others’. After coveting fans so much of the day, it is comically ridiculous. When we finally determine which two parties get a fan, neither will pick one. As sweat trickles down my back, I’m impatient for my shower. Secretly numbering them “Fan 1” and “Fan 2” ends the deliberations, as fan assignment is randomized. The winners promise to pass the fans on tomorrow to those of us who do without now, but I tell them if we pass on tonight, they’ll get to keep them. I apologize repeatedly for the conditions, but hear no lamentation or condemnation from them, only a magnanimous recognition after their long journeys that this ordeal is not of my genesis. The powwow is a twisted pleasure, and I love these families more for enduring our trial with humor and generosity.

Valerie calls again, well past 1 a.m., and says Hope is renting two flats: one for us, and one for the kids. Both are air conditioned, and in close proximity to each other. She kindly makes the arrangements, as heat, dehydration, and the hour have dulled me mentally.

Anticipating Monday with the kids’ arrival and our departure to cooler digs and purer air, I collapse, masked, into bed. I know when I awaken, Hope, eleven hours behind, will have everything ready. I am still again, but not panicky now. I am never alone, even in this dark. I have friends here and at home, generous friends, and somehow together, we’ll see this through, to complete the mission that moves us all.



Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August Trip Photo Album Up On Facebook

See our August 7-13 Moscow Lighthouse Project trip photos here.

Like what you see?  Consider our October 28-November 3 trip to Moscow.  We'd love to have you!



Monday, August 16, 2010

Out of the Frying Pan

Three Saturdays ago, initially generalized abdominal pain later localizing low to the right prompted my call to my doctor’s office. A nurse directed me to the emergency room, and warned she’d call back in thirty minutes to ensure I’d obeyed. Her threat to check up on me was instructive, and I made a beeline for the ER and was diagnosed with appendicitis. When an appendectomy was ordered, my first fear was for the August trip to Russia, but my surgeon gave his blessing for travel thirteen days hence, somewhat allaying my reservations.

Home on Monday, I was busier than usual and conducting Lighthouse business from bed. Speaking with a North Carolina family whose calling is to keep sibling groups intact, I thought of Zulya and Lora, for whom hope had expired (Her Lora, 4/9/10). The family was interested, and went through heroics to obtain passport and visa in an astounding nine days.

The week of the trip, Lighthouse Project director Hope told me Moscow was in the throes of its worst heat wave in the last century. Checking the weather, I was dismayed to see 104°  forecast for our arrival. Later, adding that wildfires in old peat bogs outside the capital were shrouding the city in clouds laced with carbon monoxide and other pollutants, Hope suggested I bring face masks. Initially resistant in my vanity, I eventually acquiesced, but secretly planned to return them unused after the trip.

***

On Friday, my journey commences at 4:30 a.m. Having traveled to Russia four previous times the past ten months, I’ve accumulated many frequent flyer miles. On both legs of my flight, this status lands me a coveted complimentary upgrade from economy to business class, especially desirable for the trans-Atlantic portion. For once, I can stretch out and sleep mid-flight, though my pleasure is a guilty one as I remember my two host families holed up in economy class, unable to catch even a few winks.

On our descent into Moscow, I’m appalled at our low altitude when I finally see the ground. I am still marveling at how close we are when acrid fumes of smoke waft through the plane. Nauseated instantly, I barely suppress the urge to vomit. I panic, then pray for calmness and dispersion of the pungent fog. Usually, I worry about my luggage arriving, but with the American Lung Association's slogan, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters,” tearing at breakneck speed through my mind, I fear only for my precious masks. At landing, everyone seems stunned and nobody claps, foregoing this celebratory tradition at touchdown in Mother Russia. The flight attendant’s “Welcome to Moscow,” seems a heartless joke rather than a flight formality, and I want to scream at her that I don’t feel welcomed and I want to leave now. Inside the airport, it’s stifling and infiltrated with a suffocating smoke. I try to quell the desire to breathe deeply, but finally inhale and am punished with paroxysms of hacking. The lines at immigration are the shortest I’ve ever seen, making my subsequent wait for my luggage seem longer and more harrowing.

Dima picks us up. With my bags safely in hand, I offer everyone a round of masks; Dima shrugs it off as a crazy notion, and tells me I’ll be “ugly” if I wear one. This sentiment, so disturbing before the trip, now earns a snort at its powerlessness to dissuade me from donning respiratory protection, no matter how unsightly.

On the drive, Dima offers to show us a stable he operates for the benefit of handicapped children. Hoping the weather might be better in the country, we agree, though the price is a longer ride in his oven on wheels. Down a wending road where we gently rear-end one vehicle and nearly bowl over a pedestrian ambling across the road, the smog decreases appreciably. We arrive at the barn, an eclectic structure cobbled together out of materials Dima has collected from here and there. He proudly shows us several horses, Russian breeds, all of whom seem anxious to see him. One snarling dog, several panting rabbits, a miniature donkey, and a goat whose milk Dima offers us complete the menagerie.

After the tour, we shuffle down the road to a wooden movie set depicting eighteenth-century England, where they're filming a soap opera.  Dima enters like he owns the place, and we follow in his wake. An actress wilting in a heavy costume hides behind the structure, dragging on a cigarette made laughably redundant by the omnipresent smoke.  She seems flattered when we ask for a picture, but then she unleashes a Russian tirade when one photo is snapped as she puffs on the cigarette.

Back on the road, we stop at a flea market featuring tired odds and ends that look like ancient Goodwill rejects. It’s disheartening to see human beings sitting in smoke all day, trying to eke out an existence peddling such meager wares. Our presence encourages them in vain, as we buy nothing, though a retro-looking Russian alphabet chart tempts me until I discover it is battery operated and new.

After the flea market, our last stop is Ashan, to grocery stores what airplane hangars are to garages. I pick out the breakfast food and derive a perverse satisfaction when one of the families, loyal blog readers, agrees my description of the store as a dehumanizing melee is accurate (Breakfast, 6/30/10). Smoke hangs just below the ceiling, and the lack of air conditioning inside a store so cavernous and enclosed is oppressive, and not conducive to loitering.

We know in advance the hotel will not be cool, but depression sets in when we find there aren’t even fans to circulate the foul air. Long, cold showers proceed our dinner at a restaurant selected merely for its possession of air conditioning. At night, I check the weather, and find the temperature reached 97° today, obliterating the previous record of 84° on this date. Weather conditions on each half-hour report only “smoke,” with no relief projected until at least Wednesday. Right now, that seems an eternity away.

An online slide show depicts the fires under whose ravages we now suffer. In one village, completely leveled by fire, two women rummage in the charred shell of their home, rescuing sooted jars of pickles stored in their cellar. I finally cry at the devastation in Russia. Their home is gone, and so little remains that all they can salvage is pickles.

I always want children to be adopted, but as I melt under my mask in a morgue-like room, I pray harder than usual that our efforts are not wasted.

I’m in the fire. But if we can help the kids, it will be worth it.