I realized I had been living in Candyland, Siberia
when I arrived on Kamchatka. A Russian friend had mentioned that a trip to Kamchatka is a trip to ten years ago, so, being that my three most recent fascinations were(are) Slaughterhouse Five, Back to the Future, and vintage Soviet postcards, I was lapping it all up.
The airport was a vision in cement and military, cloaked in volcano.
Ok, let’s start from the beginning.
As I peeled away the eyecrust that had accumulated from the long and sleepy flight, these volcanos came into sight: sharp, pointy rock monsters that ripped their way up through the sky.
I was staying with Martha Madsen, an (the?) American woman living on Kamchatka. She’s been married to a Russian man for over a decade now, running a bed and breakfast amongst endless other projects. She’s worked with BBC, National Geographic, and even some handsome surfer dudes on various Kamchatka documentaries. She’s also very close friends with Laura Williams, author of The Stork’s Nest(trailer, of sorts, here), who came to speak with our Russian House my freshman year about environmental conservation on Kamchatka. Julia Phillips, Fulbright researcher to Kamchatka and human-du-jours, also happened to have Thanksgiving with Martha. I had found Martha on the Wwoofing website. So, through a beautiful web of connections, we got in touch and I was able to stay at her home for two weeks in exchange for garden- and housework. You can and should read Julia’s beyond perfect Kamchatka blog on the Moscow Times here.
The theme of my three Kamchatskyian weeks was immediately revealed to me: экстрим! For all you laymen out there, that’s “extreme.” Say it with a chunky Russian “r” for the full effect. This theme manifested itself in various ways and to varying degrees, but at all times I was aware of the #ekstreem nature of Kamchatka.
Martha and I started off with a little trip to the fish market to pick up some dinner. #Ekstreemly fresh, #ekstreemly delicious, and also involved one fish shamelessly gargling another. Also, the smeared scales and assorted guts charmed me to pieces. This was obviously going to be where I would get all my fish from now on.
Every morning at 7am we would walk the dogs. All things considered, this wasn’t that #ekstreem, but the dogs did get muddier than one could possibly imagine dogs getting, so there was that.
Also, there were some cats on the way.
#Ekstreem exercise. Er…
There are nice views, and then there are #ekstreemly nice views.
There are bridges, and then there are #ekstreem bridges.
There’s McDonald’s, then there’s #ekstreem McDonald’s, i.e. Shawerma.
And this is just #ekstreemly hilarious: carving out the foam of the bus seat in front of you to make a trash receptacle for your семочки (any kind of seeds, here we see sunflower seeds) shells.
There was another girl who also worked in Martha’s garden and greenhouse, Nina. We chatted pleasantly while furiously ripping weeds out of their earthy sockets. One afternoon, she invited me to an event called Опэн Аэр, i.e. “Open Air” said with an #ekstreem Russian pronunciation. Committed to making up for my inactivity of the last two months in Khanty, I signed up for anything and everything with a near psychotic zeal, so naturally, I blew her ear out on the phone with my emphatic ДА. (Da = yes).
We drove in a friendly but busted up Lada with a plastic,-tar,-and-watermelon-scented air freshener dangling from the mirror. My new friends didn’t believe I was American at first – it was easier for them to think I was faking my accent than to believe that I was actually from that way over there place. But eventually my questionable use of grammar assured them that no real Russian would ever in their right minds talk as bizarrely as I did, so thus, they met their first American.
As with any other welcoming rite, I was asked what curse words I knew.
I railed them off with glee, spitting out expletives like a mad sprinkler. They hooped with laughter, eyes watering, mouths unabashedly stretched wide. (Excellent dental work all around, I might add.) More curses were contributed. Creative curse phrases, unique Kamchatka curses, curses roughly based on anatomy, curses so naughty that the girls were forced to scold the boys and tell me that if I ever wanted to get married, I was never to utter those words.
Ladas bring out the best in people!
We arrived at night to a forest speckled with bald patches, each crammed with Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans, and the occasional Lada. Kamchatka is so close to Japan that everyone imports Japanese cars with lefthand steering wheels.
There was a whole DJ table set up- speakers bigger than tree trunks, lights brighter than stars, and a DJ larger than life. Just a few steps away from the music and dance setup was a great caldron hanging over an open fire, steaming and crackling as any proper witches’ brew should. Inside sloshing around excitedly was уха (ukha), classic Kamchatka fish soup, enough to feed a whole fleet of godly DJs and their obedient dancing followers. So here we have it: underground techno hotspot and centuries of tradition just meters away from each other, coexisting without question.
A few days later I had my first full day free. It was spent manically running from thing to thing, crazed and squirrely, driven to do it all!
Scrambling across town into suburb into town into village into plot of land, lied about my experience with horses because tired of being babied, threw my leg over the saddle and willed myself up, fled the earth in a dusty fury, biomes fly by farm birchforest plains swamp river, galloping hard enough to turn back clocks, whipped by branches and horsehair, splattered with earth’s muddy vengeance, grinning wildly revealing gritty mud-flecked teeth.
Return. Boiling tea, photo after photo of beautiful wife and beautiful horses and beautiful mountains, must leave (“already late!”) but must have one more cup of tea and one more photo album and tour of humble and beloved home and meet the dog and the son and the daughter. A blurry swipe of gratitude and amazement and love and respect for people who have carved out of steel a most splendid life.
Board this bus switch to that bus squeeze into this car pack into that van. We could have walked here, says Nina, but last week pedestrians got attacked by bears so her mom wasn’t crazy about the idea so we all bought booze and cigarettes and batted our eyelashes so Vanya/Sasha/Misha/Pasha would drive us out to the Pacific. Parked, stripped, ran. Black sand, lingering chunks of snow, brainfreeze water. All reservations thrown into the wind weeks ago. I dropped mine out the plane window, and I think they were just born without ’em.
Now for tea. We build a fire and out comes an artillery of picnic foods. Fluffy bread, slabs of salty meat and rubbery cheese, glistening red-orange fish eggs, slimy pickled mushrooms, plasticky pink sausages, matte tan eggs, pale green cucumbers and pink tomatoes, aromatic black tea. A veritable feast reduced to a deceptively innocuous term; “tea drinking.”
What’s that? Over there in the distance, smoking! Is it a volcano?! Are we witnessing a volcanic eruption?!?! Lava? Ash? Pumice?! AAHH DANTE’S PEAK RELIVED!!!!??????
What are you going on about?
UGHUUUHHHHH THE GIANT FIREY MOUNTAIN OVER YONDER!!! –>
Oh, THAT?! You mean the burning pile of TRASH?
Scurry off to the last event. Band practice. Walk through dank, moist basement room with scrappy punk splashing against the walls, another room with screechy metal, a third with serrated rap. My friend pulls out his base, his friends take pulls on a bottle in a paper bag. Drums are smashed on triumphantly, guitar chords strum heroically, fingers crawl masterfully up and down the neck of the base. Just some dudes, any dudes, in some room, any room, playing some music, any music. Same dingy basement smell as in Collegetown USA basements across the globe. Same finger blisters, same big egos and tension between them. Same reasons for playing.
Back to work, but now Julia Phillips (read her blog have you not done that yet?! http://www.themoscowtimes.com/blogs/447156.html) is back in town! She had been in the Valley of the Geysers, but now returned.
Parking lot disco under the approving(oh yeah?) eyes of heavily cloaked Lenin.
Russia begins right here. Right in this very spot. Legendary. Ringing in the start with kvas’ (bread soda), a BB gun, and a wilted cigarette.
State-funded statue bears (har har) striking resemblance to a particular state-favored party.
Also, quick side note, I don’t have any good pictures from this, but Martha participated in a dog show during my stay. It was pretty small and low-key, mainly proud dog owners displaying their obedient and well-groomed best friends. A nice, pleasant afternoon.
Sponsored by… Purina? No. Friskies? No. United Russia? Yes.
-Video perhaps coming soon-
Anyway, for Julia’s last night, she had a nice grill get-together, too. Lots of pleasant socializing, just people recounting average-joe stories of pulling their jeeps out of flooded rivers, climbing volcanoes after work, volunteering at the local geyser park. #ekstreem.
Once the sun set and the kids made their way home, we became the kids and decided to jump over the fire. For some reason in these pictures, the fire looked way less #ekstreem when we used a flash, so you’ll just have to believe that we were indeed doing something cool.
The walk home at dawn. The clouds were congregating around Mt. Vilyuchensky, making it look like it was erupting baby blue cotton candy into the pale morning sky.