Saturday, May 1, 2010

Little Journey

Red Square, the most Russian of sights, is on the docket for Tuesday. While our group is anxious to go, a few express reservations learning Faith intends to use the metro to get there. It’s a ten-minute walk from hotel to station. The number of pedestrians bearing flowers swells as we approach. Outside, TV cameramen and police with dogs scan the masses; yesterday’s tragedy has bolstered today’s crowds. I’d feel like a gawker, were this not our station. Eyes welling with tears and knot rising in throat, I am shocked by the violation I feel as I enter.

Just inside the doors, a table holds bouquets in front of a placard decrying the heinous act. A small group rings the display, some praying, others crossing themselves thrice, Orthodox fashion. An elderly woman croaks a mournful song, candles flickering at her feet.

Our group flows down the elevators; no one says much. In the crush to board the train, I momentarily shed my angst, but once aboard, I survey those surrounding me, hoping their only interest is getting to their stop. I feel a private and ashamed relief when we disembark outside the Kremlin.

On my first sojourn with our new trip last November, we visited the Lenin Mausoleum. To my chagrin, questionnaires I collected post-travel heaped scorn on Moscow’s quirkiest sight, one of my favorites. Nixed for January, several travelers express interest this time. Lenin takes Mondays and Fridays off to soak in a secret-recipe chemical preservative bath, but he receives visitors today. Some in our group prefer to mill about in Red Square, feeding potato chips to the youngest children who stay behind. The rest of us desk-check our bags and pass through metal detectors, an exercise taking far longer than the minute or two we’re allowed inside the mausoleum. Having visited twice before, I am more captivated by the reactions of my comrades than by Lenin. One boy uses a laser pointer, earning a stiff rebuke from a guard beside the glass case enclosing communism’s poster child. The ceiling is denuded in places where plaster has crumbled, and I doubt such disrepair would have been countenanced in Soviet days. On exit, the adults have muted reactions, and the children appreciate the spectacle more for its macabre value than its historicity.

Red Square is sunny, and for the first time ever in Russia, I shed my gloves. After our requisite group photos in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, we find the gate open to the church. In five trips to the motherland encompassing at least fifteen square visits, I’ve never ventured in. Guide books deem the interior of Moscow’s most iconic structure anticlimactic, and rather than rob it of its mystery, I’ve chosen to just appreciate the exterior. Passing through the gate, we circle the building, though no one asks to actually go inside. Filling my memory card with stunning close-ups of domes decked in geometric shapes, I love the walk, and vow it won’t be the last. The only pock is the dumpster behind, ill-placed beside the resplendent church.

Lunch is in GUM Mall, at a cafeteria so perkily painted I find it irresistible. The food is inexpensive and Russian, but of sufficient variety that even American palates find something pleasing. Space is scarce, but Faith works her brassy magic, asking diners at several tables if members of our party can join them. I chuckle from a distance, until she points me to the table she’s solicited for us. Two strangers sit there; one serves me a withering glare as I sidle reluctantly to the table’s far end. By the time Faith joins me, my unwelcoming companions have excused themselves. I ask her if sharing tables is socially acceptable, or desperate, within Russia. She seems amused I find it discomfiting, and assures me it’s fine style, if  given permission.

GUM offers western, clean, and free restrooms, a rare Russian trifecta; savvy travelers use such facilities when available, needed or not. Outside Red Square, a row of portable toilets, lacking sinks, cost almost seventy cents for single admission. A dignified attendant, looking Maytag bored, awaits customers, ensconced in a converted outhouse office.

All week, Vera, fifteen, has hung from Ed, a single man traveling with us just to encourage children who otherwise might have been hostless, and left behind. On our excursions, kids have a walking partner, and Vera is quick to claim him. As our week winds down, she pulls Faith aside and confides she wants Ed to adopt her and brother Sasha (Her Brother's Keeper, 1/2/10). When Faith tells her it’s impossible, since single men may not adopt from Russia, Vera’s face drops. “Can he get married?” she implores.

After our outing, the metro whisks us back to our station. Near the accident site, a somber throng surrounds a mushrooming floral mountain. Faith starts toward it, glances at the children, then leads us home instead. Walking to the hotel, swarms of mourners carrying bouquets stream past.

We transform the common room of our hotel into a festive birthday celebration for the kids. With all the rooms we’ve rented on three trips and more booked for June, we are popular with management. They let us hang streamers and scores of balloons; I derive a proud thrill taping balloons by framed photos of our first trip gracing the common room walls. After an English “Happy Birthday”, the kids blow out the candles on count of three. Faith humors me when I command a repeat performance for video. Afterward, we eat bird’s milk cake, a confection somewhat better than its name suggests.

After our party, we gather toys, candy, and trinkets for orphanage donations. Kids pack their new belongings, and goodbyes begin. Two adoptive families and all our group’s voluminous luggage fills much of Dima’s Nissan, allowing only the chaperone and youngest kids to ride to the train station. Dima astounds me with his packing prowess, squeezing eleven people into a van he’s wrung over 200,000 miles from. Three hosts ride the metro to the train station with eight kids and me, where we’ll meet the others for the twelve-hour trek back to the region. As Faith leaves with Dima, I wonder if she worries we’ll get lost, but we arrive before those who fought Moscow’s traffic in the Nissan.

At the train, an accommodating conductor lets me board to say my goodbyes. It’s a third class platzcar, with about fifty bunks in one mostly open space. Kids sit on beds, at tiny tables picking at leftovers we packed for them. Several hug and thank me as I bid them farewell. When I’m ushered out, the hosts are waving and snapping pictures through the windows. Fifteen- and twelve-year-old sisters Elena and Lidia see their host, and future dad, and poignantly put their hands to the window to meet his.

Back at our metro station, we stop to see the burgeoning mounds of flowers. It’s eerily silent, except for the screech of trains arriving every minute. A righteous indignation flares as I stand there, solemnly honoring the victims whose tragic deaths seem a personal loss. These souls were once countrymen of my own daughter and son, and the countrymen of so many of our Lighthouse families’ dear children, and I share the sense of betrayal and grief.

In the night, I mull the dichotomy of this evening. At one station, such sadness permeates. The lost cannot return, their lives snuffed out by hatred and wicked misunderstanding. At the other station, our temporary loss expects joyful reunion, and rebirth into families. My host families, my friends, have pain in the forecast before that happens. But at the close of our little journey, we have hope for the future, and a confidence that, however wending our paths, they’ll merge together again.

Photos above

Birthday videos on our Facebook Page