Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My Russian journey (part 2)

The Kotorosl river.

Day One – London to Moscow to Yaroslavl

My flight from Heathrow to Moscow was almost 4 hours. The flight wasn’t too bad I had checked in online which meant I had been able to chose a window seat. Brilliant blue sky the whole flight. Moscow was visible from 150 miles away – fantastic looking down over it as we descended. I had left London at 8.40am and arrived in Moscow at 3.35pm (local time). Where I was in Russia was 4 hours ahead of UK time but as Russia is so huge it varies from place to place. The clocks also went forward the night I arrived confusing my body clock even more! My boots had set off the alarms at Heathrow so I was a bit worried about trying to explain in Russian that I had steel toe-caps! Problem solved by removing boots before I was x-rayed!
After making it through the somewhat scary passport control I was met at Domodedovo (from now on know as DME!) airport by Olga one of the translators who works for Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) in Russia. CCS has about 7 members of staff from what I saw who are all Russians that live locally. Nadia runs the programme, Olga, Dasha and Julia are translators (though they also meet volunteers from the airport, give talks and Russian lessons as well as coming along to the placements with us), there was also another woman who I think helped with getting the volunteers to Russia and we had a couple of drivers.  
The two other girls from America who were also volunteering for a week were also at the airport having arrived earlier.

After a quick toilet break we started the long drive to Yaroslavl! I had already been warned that it was a 5 hour drive away however because of the traffic it took almost 8 hours. The traffic was very bad leaving Moscow, lots of people in Russia have summer houses they go to at the weekend and as it was freak warm weather (beautifully warm all week) instead of the usual snow expected at this time of year then people were going to them early. The roads leave us Brits with nothing to complain about, in fact a lot of what I experienced made me realise just how lucky we are in this country. Pollution is pretty bad in the parts of Russia I saw – cars would be so dirty it was impossible to read their number plates. In preparation for the upcoming week I decided to practice my Russian by trying to read every sign and advert we passed! My reading of Russian certainly improved during the week! In amongst all the dirt and new builds were the beautiful Russian churches and tiny wooden summer houses that became more and more frequent the further we got from Moscow.

Chatted to Olga and the other two volunteers. Olga told us a bit about herself and what she does for CCS. Stopped at a roadside café for our first Russian meal! It was about 9pm by now and I was very tired – chose to have mushroom soup (very nice) as it had ingredients I recognised and bottled water. We had been advised not to drink the water as it contains huge amounts of chlorine. Olga orders for us all in extremely fast Russian I listen to see if I can recognise a few words! The other 2 volunteers don’t know any Russian. 
Back into the van and drive in the dark (not many street lamps and very bumpy roads) for a couple more hours – begin to wonder what I’m doing here! We enter Yaroslavl – there are a lot of factories here and the smell of fumes lingers throughout my trip. Gradually the factories decrease and we enter the town and finally reach our hotel at midnight - Kotorosol where all CCS volunteers stay and where the offices are. CCS have two offices here – one is a room used for meetings, various talks and Russian lessons. The other is used as the office, and also the craft room where all the supplies/toys we take to our placements live.

There is a train station nearby and trams run past our windows all night. It was very noisy, but I soon got used to it. Myself and the other two volunteers are sharing rooms – I have my own room and the other 2 are sharing but our rooms connect and we share a bathroom.

Despite being exhausted I lay in bed my window open (the heating is never turned off and the rooms are very hot – the choice is to sweat to death or to be deafened by the trams/trains – most nights I choose the latter!) and spend an hour or so taking everything in before falling asleep.

Day Two – Yaroslavl

Woken at 8ish by alarm (I had set it so I wouldn’t miss breakfast). Woke up to a bright blue sky and the noise of the trams running just underneath my window. Very strange to finally be in Russia after the months of preparing.

View from my window.

Dressed and showered and went down to breakfast with the other two girls I had arrived with last night (J and B). We were the first ones into the dining room – thought we might meet the other volunteers there but it became apparent later that not all of the volunteers ever get up early enough to make it to breakfast...esp. at the weekend! 

Breakfast was...two fried eggs, a bread roll, yoghurt and coffee. Not the most appealing as I have trouble eating anything when I first get up anyway. Managed a bit of egg and bread and some coffee. 

We had been given a timetable the day before and we had scheduled for today an induction with Nadia (head of CCS in Russia) and a Russian lesson. As we had time before the meeting with Nadia we went out for a walk. Yaroslavl is an interesting mix of huge tower blocks and beautiful churches, the roads and pavements are not in good repair and everything is very dusty.

Back to the hotel to meet with Nadia for our orientation. She welcomed us to the programme and told us a bit about CCS in Russia, how it came to be and went over the rules and other things such as how to use the telephone and how to get laundry done! She also spoke about our placements (myself and J were to go to the hospital for kids and B to the shelter) and the orphanages. CCS also sends volunteers to work with the elderly, at after school clubs and at a boarding school. I’ll explain more about the differences in these places later.

At lunch (beetroot salad and sour cream, soup and sour cream, rice and ‘mystery meat’, fruit and tea which is always drunk black here! I have to get used to drinking it without milk or go without!) we finally get to meet the other volunteers except for M and R who had gone on a trip to St Petersburg. We’re all from the UK or the States and peoples time here ranges from a few weeks to a year. Everyone is very nice and friendly, most speak Russian from a little (like me) to a lot. It’s interesting to hear about the placements and what they think of Russia. Most are continuing to travel after they’ve finished here. One of the girls is going to Mongolia – a place on my top 5 list of countries to go to next! I want to go with her. She promises to email and tell me all about it as she’s going there with a different volunteer organisation.

After lunch we have a Russian lesson but as it’s very basic and I already know it so I’m allowed to have free time instead! :) Think about resting but instead go and chat to the other volunteers again who are in the craft room preparing for the next day. J and B finish and so we decide to go into town. Nadia takes us in her car and shows us the internet café. We all email home and I update my journal. It cost 60 roubles for 1 hour – that’s just over a pound. We go across the road to a café and attempt to order drinks – I learn that cappuccino is a universal word! The waitresses don’t speak English so all we have is my somewhat limited grasp of Russian to communicate. Manage least I have please and thank you sussed! Send silent praises of thank to my russian teacher back in the UK.

Back to the hotel for dinner – carrot salad (and yes...sour cream), chicken and potatoes, fruit salad and more black tea...enjoy talking to the other volunteers more than the food, but it’s ok. E tells me she was a vegetarian on first arriving but that it proved impossible so she had to start eating meat again.
Tomorrow we have our first day at the hospital. I’m going there with J, V and A. A is greatly loved by the kids as one of the few male volunteers. He already has a craft project planned for next week so we just need to familiarise ourselves with that. Get ready for bed, but too excited to sleep again. Lay in bed listening to the trams...

Day Three – the Hospital for Kids

Pancakes for breakfast! Yum. One of the things I noticed with all the volunteers is how much you appreciate things that you would normally take for granted when everything familiar is pancakes!
 I woke up early this morning, excited about finally getting to my placement. I want to explain first of all the differences between the orphanages, the shelter and the hospital for kids.

The Orphanage is self-explanatory – children who have no parents or whose parents are unable to look after them are placed here until they are adopted or reach 18. Foster care is very new to Russia, but is proving more successful than was first thought with mostly babies being fostered.

The Shelter is a kind of holding place for children whose parents are unable (hopefully temporarily) to look after them for one reason or another. There are many reasons but alcoholism is the biggest problem. I forget how long children can stay here for but it might be up to a year. Then a decision is made on whether the child will be returned to their parents or put into an orphanage. 

The Hospital for Kids is where I worked and therefore know the most about. It’s quite hard to describe – the word ‘hospital’ being very misleading!  It can have up to 50 children at a time who stay for a maximum of 3 months though the children can come out and be put in again (during my time there I met one boy of about 7 who was in the hospital for the 15th time)...the children at the hospital are a mix of orphans and children who have parents but for some reason or other have been brought to the hospital. The hospital is also where they put orphans who have run away from the orphanages as a punishment.

It’s the hardest placement for many reasons. The state of the hospital itself takes getting used to - it’s not very clean, in a poor state of repair and is quite smelly. The treatment of the children (aged 6-14ish) there is also hard to take in. It’s not always obvious why the kids are there, some were there for conditions like epilepsy or because they had learning difficulties...others were so heavily medicated it was impossible to know why they were there...others had nothing obvious wrong with them. The children do not go out except to a small yard and apart from that stay in to the hospital. They aren’t allowed any possessions of their own -  there were a handful of old toys at the hospital ( a couple of jigsaws, a few cars and some soft toys) which are shared between the children. They are bathed about once every 3/4 weeks and don’t often have clean clothes. In the week I was there the majority of the children wore the same clothes everyday even if they were soiled or dirty. A number of the children had their heads shaved because of lice.

My first day was a shock, I had an idea of what I was going to see but being really there in it was hard. I just took a deep breath and hugged all the kids that came up to me – they were all saying ‘privet’ (hi)and wanting cuddles. A (a volunteer who had been working at the hospital for a few weeks) had come up with a craft idea (making trees and owls to go in it – we would make a different animal each day with the kids), so we started with that. We also had a translator with us who explained to the children what we would be doing with them that day. We worked in one room with a few tables and chairs and had anything from 15-25 kids (some would lose interest and wander off while other would join in part way through).

A lot of the children seemed to understand that our Russian was pretty terrible and would purposely slow down for us or mime what they wanted. If all else failed we’d get the translator to help out! I was very grateful to my Russian teacher as I was able to ask the children their names, ages, how they were, etc. It made such a difference being able to talk with the kids if only a little.

After the craft activity we got out the games and puzzles and whatever else we might have packed. One little boy loved crocheting so we brought that for him to do everyday. All the boys loved ‘machinkas’ (toy cars) and there were lots of tears as we never had enough for everybody. I quickly learnt the word for share!
As it was so nice we took them outside to play – the space they have is mostly dirt  with a few trees...though the week after I’d been there they (the CCS volunteers) were planning on planting some flowers. There are some old climbing structures but really not that much to do. We had brought a bag of outdoor toys and there were lots of games going on...unstructured chaos! I played skipping with some of the children and also catch with two of the children who became my ‘regulars’...I played catch with them outside all week!

There were some children that I became attached to almost straight away and this continued through out the week. A beautiful girl with huge brown eyes who I secretly called Natalie (as she looked like Natalie Portman) for a while before she told me her name! A little boy of 9 who was very smiley and loved to play ball and two girls who I thought were boys until Thursday! It’s hard to tell as they mostly dress in boys’ clothes and have short hair – the names don’t mean much to me either! One of them was very quick and chatted away to us, singing – always happy. I guessed that she was one of the ones that kept running away from the orphanage. The other was a sweetheart who was heavily medicated, but I never found out what was wrong with her. Some things just weren’t told to us. She just liked to sit and be hugged and would stroke my hands and arms. They all liked having their hands held. The only affection that is given to them comes from the volunteers – none of the carers/nurses were very affectionate and we saw a child struck on more than one occasion. Very quickly I had to get used to the fact that I can’t change the system in Russia – there is prejudice against orphans and that isn’t going to change overnight.  All we as volunteers could do is show them that there are people who care and who will play with them and hug them.  Will it make a difference? Will they be able to take some of that into their adult lives? I don’t know. I hope so.

We returned to the hotel at 1ish – in time for lunch and to meet and chat with the other volunteers. Afterwards we had a Russian lesson – I knew most of it, but learnt a few new words/phrases to use with the children.

Entrance to the hospital.

We (me, J and B) then had a tour of the city with a Russian guide called Irina. We walked along the river(s) Volga and Kotorosl and saw some beautiful churches. Irina talked about the history of Yaroslavl and the buildings and monuments she took us to. Also chatted abit about Russian history in general – surprised myself by remembering quite a bit from GCSE history!

Yaroslavl is a strange mix of monasteries and tower blocks, war memorials and hockey stadiums, rivers, churches and orphanages.

Went for coffee and cake afterwards – I spoke in Russian to them and they spoke back in English – typical! Though their English was about the same standard as my Russian! So between us we created Ruslish and managed to communicate ok. ;)

Back to the hotel for dinner (there had been a special request for broccoli so we all had that along with chicken kievs!) – really enjoyed talking to the other Brit volunteers as we just laughed and found things funny that nobody else did! Talked about volunteering - it's an unheard of concept in Russia - most of the older people we spoke to thought that we were daft for spending money to come to Russia and then to work for free. Being here is certainly making me more grateful for what I have back in the UK.
Late to bed as busy in craft room preparing for tomorrow and then lying in bed thinking over the day...

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