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


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.