Friday, January 6, 2012

The Accidental Tourist

Our summer trip is scheduled for Moscow, but a few weeks before departure, we experience the Lighthouse Project’s version of an upgrade when we decide to visit the kids in their home region instead.  Nine hours after the families arrive in Russia, we board our train for the 13-hour overnight ride.  Our car, called a “vagon,” is auspiciously near empty, which I gratefully note works wonders for the sanitation of the restroom.  Our group has three private sleeping compartments for the trip; during dinner, which I’ve brought for everyone, we speculate incessantly about what is to come.  The doors to our rooms are open, and as new friends circulate, the camaraderie engendered reminds me of an impossibly wholesome college dorm.  After dinner, our excited chatter grudgingly gives way to somnolence.   Closing my door, I stretch out on my bunk, waiting for sleep.  It’s my first summer train excursion, so I relish the extended daylight to study the Russia I’d not previously seen.    Darkness curbs my sightseeing as it gradually shrouds countryside nearly devoid of manmade lights, and I’m lulled into dreamland by the sideways rocking of the train. Waking during the night, I break out my Pimsleur Russian CD in an attempt to resuscitate my language skills before arrival.  It bores me sufficiently that I sleep again before the lesson ends.
In the morning, our group raves delightedly about the adventure.  Resting on their bunks, two sip tea at a tiny table as a Russia very unlike Moscow floats by their window.  An hour outside our destination, signs bearing the names of hamlets our orphanages occupy begin to appear.  I’m thrilled to share with families their first glimpse of their host kids’ towns.  In one orphanage village, the train creeps to halt long enough for us to watch an elderly man shuffle down a dirt road, balanced by a metal bucket in each hand.  Stopping at a communal spigot near the train, we’re entranced as he fills the buckets with water, then starts back toward home.  I wonder how many people in the area lack running water, that this spectacle should play out during our short wait.

Arriving at the train station in the capital of our region, I try hard to conjure up old feelings I experienced six years ago, the first time I’d come, brimming with a pins-and-needles anxiety to finally meet my future children.  I yearn to share my memories with the others, but they’re so busy living their own first-time moments it seems selfish to infringe upon theirs, with mine. 

A nondescript bus ride whisks us to a sanatorium, our lodging for the week.   This Russian-style country retreat is off a serpentine road surrounded by wooden dachas.  With typical Russian architecture, the building’s three-floor plan is hopelessly labyrinthine, probably cobbled together bit by bit, over time.   Much about it reminds me of the orphanages, except the kids here are better dressed and have parents fawning over them.

I’m desperate to get organized before our kids arrive, but as soon as I drop my bags, I’m summoned to the sanatorium director’s office for an orientation and to pay.  Everything in Russia is inefficient; hoping this process will be different assures disappointment.  The director is an affable sort who takes the ringing of his mobile phone very seriously. Sandwiched between several calls I learn we’ll be given breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, and “dairy,” a mystery served up without explanation.  When the families hear about dairy later, they are simultaneously amused and perplexed.

Thirteen children from four orphanages are spending the week with us.  We’re still chuckling over dairy when they began arriving, orphanage by orphanage.  Love, our Russian coordinator, comes with kids from our main orphanage, and I meet her in the hallway.  As the kids file by, I size them up, trying to figure out who’s who, having only seen poorly-shot referral photos until now.  To my horror, Angelina, not scheduled to travel, comes running with a hug (Crushed Little Blossom, 7/3/11). I’d promised myself after our last trip never to bring her again without a definite host.  I can’t bear to have her on a fifth trip, without any chance of a family.  Love mirrors my dismay, exclaiming, “I don’t know why director send her!  What we must do?”  As we discuss our options, Angelina, oblivious to the consternation her presence is causing, settles in. We weigh the merits of sending her back to spare her further disappointment against the risk of offending her high-strung orphanage director.  That Angelina herself seems pleased to be here eventually ends the matter.
After a fascinating lunch featuring abundant quantity and scant quality, we rent the indoor pool for an hour.  Several of the young boys are overjoyed by the swimsuits we’ve brought, though the chaperone insists they swim in their underwear instead.  Thankfully, enough families brought extra suits that we have one fitting Angelina.  The first time I’d met her, two years ago, she wanted to learn to swim.  Now in the pool, she laboriously dog-paddles its width with a persistence earning the approbation of all poolside.
The management is quite solicitous of our group. They have an activities director; at dinner, he extends a personal invitation to us for a clown performance tonight.  When we get there, it’s obvious something was lost in translation, as we’re actually at a kids’ comedy show, requiring mastery of Russian to appreciate.  As people around us guffaw at the jokes, we sit poker-faced.  After thirty minutes, a worker beckons us to dairy.  Our relief at being rescued from the performance is short-lived, as we find nothing but glasses of tepid kefir on a tray in the cafeteria. 

Each night is capped by a “disco” attracting a mainly tween crowd.  Our families, all of whom have rooms on the second floor, are spared the brunt of the pulsating music unless they choose to attend. My room, on the third floor, is an excessively-convenient two doors down, so my heart beats in sync with every ear-splitting note.  Disco lasts about 90 minutes and ends at 9:30 nightly.  I like watching the kids, and even get dragged to the dance floor by Ekaterina who, blinded by the strobe light, doesn’t notice the clumsiness of my gyrations.  Our last night, Tim, an Alaska host dad, doles out glow bands to our dancing kids.  A near-riot ensues as, for once, the kids with families want what the orphans have.  As Tim is slammed to the wall by a pre-teen mob clamoring for the bands, he throws them out onto the middle of the floor.  In a twisted sort of way, disco is a nightly highlight.
One afternoon, we give the kids gifts we’ve brought.  While it has been an occasional matter of contention on trips, I always say the gifts are from all the families, then I personally hand each child the gifts brought for them.  While I willingly bring children without host families on our trips, I am adamant those without should not learn this in front of a crowd.  But after eight visits, I’ve realized unhosted kids are still having their hopes dashed publicly when their gifts are presented in the green Menards bags I use, rather than unique bags hosted kids get from their families.  This time I’ve brought Menards bags for every child, hosted or not, in hope of making it less obvious which kids get gifts from me.  My pre-planning goes awry, though, with Angelina there, and we have to scramble to come up with an alternate bag and gifts for her.  After the gift presentation, HIV-positive Artem, seven, who so gladly received his gifts his first trip, whispers in the translator’s ear.  As she nods at him, he marches onto a low stage in the room and chirps, “Thank you very much for doing this for me.  I love being with you, and I love the pool.”  His words bring me to tears; surely on his trips I have been entertaining an angel unaware (Angelic, 9/26/10).  That such a young child, and one without upbringing, would on his own think to thank our entire group is most touching.

I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Cheryl, from Maine, knocks on my door late that same evening, loudly, as she is competing with the disco.  Somehow, I hear and let her in.  Hearing Artem’s thank you speech, she realizes she wants him as her son; her husband agrees.  I start crying when I hear. After 18 months and four trips, the perfect child has the perfect family.

During daily Uno games, Angelina shows a surprising amount of spunk, peeking at her American opponents’ cards and directing them which to lay if they move too slowly.  She plays “Wild Draw Four” cards on Tim with impish glee.  I am mesmerized as I watch her blossom.

The day we leave the sanatorium, our drivers drop us off on the banks of the Volga, at 2,293 miles Europe’s longest river.  The river does more than just snake through the country; it flows through the consciousness of Russians themselves, who consider it their national river and refer to it as Volga-Matushka (Volga-mother).  Today as we wander alongside it, Angelina hand-in-hand with Tim’s wife Julie, I tell Julie they look good together. She confides they are seriously considering Angelina, and my heart leaps with such rapture I worry others can see, and that I’ve spoiled their secret.
Before the kids leave, we share a treat at McDonald’s.  After several days of sanatorium dining, my enthusiasm for the Golden Arches borders giddiness, and I savor a cheeseburger I would normally disdain.  Before we’re done, vehicles hired by the orphanages begin arriving to pick the kids up.  Seeing them off in the din of a fast food parking lot is completely unceremonious; it seems disrespectful, as if we believe dodging cars during the transfer is acceptable because they’re only orphans.  One orphanage driver is annoyed at having had to wait a few minutes for the kids to finish.  He pollutes the van with his cloud of cigarette smoke, and wastes no effort at concealing his feelings that the children, and our trip, have inconvenienced him.  I feel sorry for the kids, and pray they aren’t always treated so callously.

On the train ride back to Moscow, we’ve more to ponder, and less to anticipate, than before. The clackety-clack fosters no new epiphanies, and I leave Russia not knowing if Angelina will require a sixth trip.  I have wanted to adopt her myself since the middle of her fourth visit, but my husband, more practical and not having met her, is adamant a fifth adoption is not on the horizon for our family.  I wonder if no one chooses her this time, if he might rethink his position.  When I get home, he is sympathetic over her surprising appearance, but his belief that we’re done at four kids ourselves remains maddeningly resolute.

A few weeks later, Tim and Julie call me in the evening. They tell me it’s official, that Angelina is meant to be their daughter.  While the tiniest twinge of selfish regret briefly beflutters my heart, my joy for her is so total that my congratulations can scarcely convey it.  This trumps everything before it, and is easily my most satisfying Lighthouse Project moment, ever.

The irony is, for all my effort and creativity invested daily in this program, this most glorious match is one for which I’ve orchestrated nothing.  Angelina was not supposed to be here without an interested family to meet her.  While she didn’t know it, I promised her that much silently last trip.  And when she came again anyway, I felt as if I’d unwittingly betrayed her.

But God knew Angelina’s family would be there, even when I didn’t.  This “accidental” tourist was part of His perfect plan, a plan stretching from Alaska to Maine, encompassing two children who have deeply touched my heart.  I didn’t orchestrate this, but I don’t mind one bit.