Friday, July 25, 2008

Home at last


(Internet access where I was in Russia was very sparse, which is why this post is appearing now. Sorry for any delay.)

The last fortnight has been an incredible experience. The last post came from Moscow when I'd just arrived. The next morning I navigated my way through the Metro again to meet our guide and link, Dima, at Kazan station. He'd travelled 36 hours from Chelyabinsk on the train. Together we then met up with the rest of the Wetfoot team at Sheremetyevo airport outside the city, who were all rather dazed and confused following a night at Heathrow and then 5 hours' flying.

After the world's slowest bus journey (2 hours for about 5 miles) we all made it back to Kazan station in time to catch our 36 hour train to Chelyabinsk. For Dima it was all a bit déja-vu but he took it all in his stride.

The train journey was a good time. I'd done longer journeys in the past, but the Russian trains add a bit of character to any trip, especially in platzkart (3rd class). 54 people slept in each carriage, on open bunks with no compartment walls. There was nothing approaching air-conditioning to take the edge off the 30º heat, but at least there were no chickens running down the corridor, as some had predicted...

What was most interesting was looking out of the window and seeing how incredibly empty Russia is. Even in the western provinces, which are more populated, there were huge tracts of land lying fallow, with the occasional village or road breaking the monotony. A lot of the farming that was going on seemed to be more subsistence than industrial, and many of the buildings were little more than shacks. A few times, the train stopped for 10 minutes, which allowed us to get out and breathe some fresh air for a while. We passed through Samara in a thunderstorm and drenched ourselves with rain to cool off.

Eventually we arrived in the city of Chelyabinsk, and everyone was more than happy to get off the train! After a shower and a rest in Dima's and another's flats, we boarded a bus out to our campsite, 2 hours north of the city. The Friday afternoon rush hour and hot weather meant Ladas were breaking down every 100m, which only made the congestion worse.

The campsite is being used all summer by various camps. We arrived at the tail end of a church camp, attended by 7 different churches around Chelyabinsk. Given the fractured state of the church in Russia it's a big deal to get so many people together - even on holiday. Some of the people there stayed on for our camp as cooks or helpers.

The site is simply stunning in its beauty. It's right by a lake with warm water to swim in, and it's mostly shaded by trees so it doesn't get too hot during the day. Staying there for 9 days was a blessing in itself. The beauty was mitigated by a few little niggles:
  • poisonous snakes have been spotted in the long grass around the campsite
  • the toilet facilities are located in the long grass around the campsite
  • the snakes like to swim in the lake
  • other snakes swim underwater in the lake
  • each of us had our own personal swarm of mosquitoes which thinks DEET tastes like ketchup (I was bitten 50 times on the first day... then wised up)
  • a bout of food poisoning struck 10 of the 12 on our team
  • one member of our team, Alex from Korea/Uzbekistan, was bitten by an underwater snake, struck by food poisoning and hit with allergies all at once, which left him unconscious and struggling to breathe. Fortunately a day in the local hospital sorted him out, but for a while we were not at all sure he'd pull through.
Last but not least...
  • the site is on the edge of the "medium-contamination" zone from some of the 7 nuclear accidents in nearby Mayak, and is 10km from a lake that was used as a nuclear waste dump for decades, before being concreted over. We were there for 1 week, so aren't in danger.
The camp was open to university students from the whole province. Dima and the team from CCX invited 2500 to come; of whom 75 expressed an interest. Of these 75, only 8 actually came, all of whom were girls. So it was quite disappointing for the Russian team and us to have such a low attendance. Conversely, it meant we had more time to spend with those who did come, as well as with the Russian team and ourselves. CCX are working in a really tough field: evangelism in Russia is difficult and slow, as the culture continues to change out of the Soviet era and aftermath.

The theme of the camp was Lord of the Rings, which affected the discussions, games, evening activities and dramas. In the UK it would have been a flop, but the Russians take these things very seriously (as we discovered to our cost when we prepared farcical dramas while they were completely straight-faced) so the camp worked well.

Each day we started with breakfast at 10 (great decision) followed by a discussion of spiritual themes seen in LotR, such as mortality, relationships, sacrifice or evil. After some free time we had lunch at 2, followed by more free time until 5, when the camp's small groups met (and we had our team devotions). After supper at 7, we had evening games which often took the form of wide games or quests, then a campfire at sunset (the sun sets after 10pm) where we were responsible for leading some seminars or giving testimonies. Rinse and repeat for a week and you have a camp!

We had some great input with our evening seminars and were able to preach the gospel clearly and show how it affects everyone's lives. I had the opportunity to speak on the incarnation of God, which was a good reminder of the importance of Jesus' human nature.

The other task we had was more informal: building relationships and having conversations. This was more difficult, especially for those of us who aren't girls and don't speak Russian! Nevertheless, quite a few significant conversations took place and several of our team members really connected with a student or two. A disappointment for me was that I didn't connect in that way, which limited my impact at the camp. As a team, our devotions and prayer meetings were a real encouragement, and the friendships we built there are a significant part of the trip's success.

The camp finished on Sunday, and although I was sorry to leave the natural beauty and lake-swimming behind, it was good to have an opportunity to see the city of Chelyabinsk. We stayed in Dima's and Lyosha's typically Russian 2-room flats again and explored the city with the team and the students on Monday, as a final opportunity to speak with them.

The city is one of the largest in Russia (1 million+) but to be honest has little to recommend it. The air pollution and dust is pretty bad, there's a lot of poverty still around (especially out of the centre) and it feels quite isolated, being 1000 miles east of Moscow. Some of the older buildings in the centre give the place some character though, and the statues of Lenin still standing are a bit retro chic. We saw the city best from the rusty Ferris wheel in the main city park, and had a couple of nice meals in restaurants in the centre. Late on our last evening in Chelyabinsk, Dima took us ice-skating in an enormous and deserted ice rink.

On Tuesday morning we piled into a minibus with bags up to our shoulders to get to the airport. Chelyabinsk airport is not exactly an international hub, and the Aeroflot flight to Moscow was just as expected. At least it didn't crash.

That concluded our official ministry on the trip. All that remained were two days in the Russian capital to wind down, sightsee and say goodbye. As I said in my last post, it's an impressive city with a lot of impressive sights. Standing in Red Square, shopping in GUM, exploring the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral (a house of God in the home of communism?) and seeing the incredible wealth that's been concentrated in the city. There are more limos than Ladas in Moscow - and not Zils carrying Party officials either. The famous Metro really does have chandeliers in its stations, and it's only 19 rubles per trip (£0.40).

The prices of many things in the city are eye-watering: on our last night, we met with one of Alex's friends who showed us a traditional Russian restaurant. We shared a bottle of vodka (when in Rome...) and the bottle came to a cool 3000 rubles - £60! Compared to the rest of Russia it's a completely different league, and even London seems cheap for some things in comparison.

Russia had one last sting in its tail yesterday as we flew home. The cheapest flights were with KD Avia through Kaliningrad. Our flight from Moscow arrived 10 minutes late after the pilot botched his approach and had to go around. That left us with only 40 minutes to transfer planes. The enormous queues at immigration didn't fill our hearts with confidence, and when the agent saw my unstamped Russian visa it all kicked off. She spoke no English and my 10 words of Russian weren't helping much.

I tried to explain that because I entered Russia on the train from Belarus there was no stamp, because there's no border control on that frontier. If you work for a corpulent bureaucracy shouldn't you at least know how it works? (OK, I didn't try to explain that). Various people looked at my passport, each expressing the same amazement that I had an unstamped visa. Eventually it was approved, but I ran through the security channel, threw my bag into the x-ray machine and was reunited with our group. The flight was delayed 30 minutes.

So now it's back to London life. I've never enjoyed drinking tap water so much, or being able to understand announcements in train stations. The last 5 weeks have been a very intense period, and transitioning back to life at home will be difficult - especially as my main task is sitting at a computer writing my dissertation. Of course it's all work for God so I have to remember that I'm serving Jesus by crunching numbers in my spreadsheet as much as in camping in Poland or Russia.

If you've read this far then you deserve some kind of reward. I have nothing to offer except a few photos:

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