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.