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Reuniting with Babushkina!

(Click here to view the newsletter which features photos and a story about the whole Babushkina experience and more.) After a long Journey I finally made it back to Babushkina- one of the main reasons for return visit to Russia. Below are diary accounts of my time with Baba Galya and the others from the village who helped me so warmly during the frostbite saga in late 1999. Click here to view recents pictures corresponding with this story. 23/7/03 Hello Babushkina: The bus grumbled, whined, squeaked and bounced, working around and through the myriad of pot-holes. The sun it seemed had barely moved for hours and angled fiercely in through the window. It was around 31 degrees. In the rear-vision mirror the driver could be seen clenching his jaw in the midst of his battle with the bus and road. Russian techno music blared out of the dusty speakers, the bass beats seen as small dust clouds. I sat, eyes still scanning the landscape: a dirt track leading to a hamlet of graying wooden houses, a glimpse of a Babushka washing clothes in a stream, rich green forest extending to the horizon in every direction, the odd Lada speeding past on a mission of some sort. The sweet smell of summer- sweat, grass, forest. Three and a half years ago; minus 20, dark, and legs hurting, toes getting number and number, Beijing light years away... "We are almost to Babushkina!" cried the 15 year old boy on a nearby seat, with whom I had happened to spend the past 24 hours of bus and train travel fromSt Petersburg. He and his mother were off to Nikolsk to visit grandparents and help with the cutting of hay. I turned to him, and couldn't control my smile. "Yep." I could see that they were excited. Even they had referred to the experience in Babushkina as a "Skaska" (fairytale). I had shown them the book and glossy articles that were neatly packed into my bag. Indeed from Australia, I had begun to wonder whether this place really existed. So far away, so removed. Maybe it was just a fairytale? Maybe I had exaggerated? Was Baba Galya even still alive? Had the strong community feel just been a figment of my imagination? Had the winter snow hidden the less magical side of life? If Galya, Sveta and others still lived here, would they remember the events of the past with the same significance? Or was I returning to disappointment? I couldn't be sure. At least my bus ticket had "Babushkina" written on it, as did some of the road signs. Half an hour later, the forest abruptly peeled back. A sharp tingle down my spine snapped my eyes into focus, and made my sweat feel cold. Wooden log houses, triangular roofs, dotted around the slopes of a slight river valley. A pale blue sky, dusty air, a man tending to goats in the old abandoned airfield next to Baba Galyaís house. We rumbled on. Down past the road on which I had slipped and fell many times on the bike on our departure. Above and to the right, the surgery, where my frostbite was snipped clear. Further, past Baba Galyaís over the river, boys with skin tanned almost black swimming in their underwear near the bridge. A man fishing, someone maneuvering around potholes on an old Russian motorbike with sidecar attached. The bus came to a halt, engine switched off and with that the sounds and feel of Babushkina became real. Flipping the small backpack over my shoulder I bode goodbye to my new friends, and set off back over the bridge. I knew the route well to Galyaís house on "Ulitsya Pobedi." I was even more hot and sweaty by the time I reached the dusty street lined by log houses of varying condition. A few dogs had been roused and now followed the stranger. Baba Galya's house lay unmistakably to the left, the familiar well near the front gate. Long grass grew on both sides of the pale grey picket fence. Nothing moved. After pausing I opened the wooden latch on the gate and made my way for the front door. Nothing. I knocked, rang the doorbell, tapped the window. Still nothing. Suddenly it occurred to me that the house had been abandoned. Had Galya passed away? Had she moved? Oh well at least I had tried. Maybe Sveta is still here? I knocked still harder but it seemed all too obvious that the house was no longer in use. Then; "Tim! Tim! I am coming!" the voice was unmistakable. I swung around, and there she was waddling up the street, shopping bag in hand. Salami forearms, small puckered mouth, and eyes drooping and oozing with kindness. "Tim! I am just coming back from the shop. Boy is it hot here! How hot is it! And how are you!" she asked as I met her at the gate. "Oh, not bad, not bad, and how is everything here?" I said it with a grin from ear to ear. "Not too bad at all" she said, waddling, face seemingly ready to break into the cackly laughter that was suddenly so familiar. Without hesitation I followed her, ducking through three low doorways into the house. My immediate impression was of how small, and how basic it really was. The stench from the open toilet pit, wooden door latches, a straw broom leaning against a wall. Inside and the living quarters seemed smaller again, and suddenly very remote from the common luxuries of western life. The kitchen a tiny space between the wood stove, and bedroom wall, lathered in 50 years of the excess grime from cooking with generous sums of fat and oil. No fridge, no running water, a jar of salted meat, and a frying pan with cow tongue pieces. It wasn't long before we were sitting a the table, an array of potato, fish, tongue, berries, meatballs, bread, salad and pancakes being forced down. From under the table Galya produced a bottle of brown liquid that I knew only too well- Barmatuka, her homemade vodka/wine. "As they say in Russia, 'lets have just a little, but many, many times!'" she burst out. We rose our glasses and I watched Galya down the full shot with a gurgle, followed by the shake of her head and a sigh of relief. Although I hadn't warned her of my arrival it seemed that I had somehow slipped back into the old routine- only this time my toes were fine. Galya couldn't wait to see the book, photos, and articles afterwards, and I was more than happy to sit put- there was a familiar thumping fullness in my stomach that made it hard to walk. Apparently I had eaten "badly" though. For an hour or so she shook her head, laughed and looked on with tacit curiosity, often looking at the same image again and again. Of particular interest was a photo of her and Sveta in Babushkina which she laughed heartily about. "You and Sveta are stars in Australia right now!" I said, and she repeated the phrase, chewing it over, giggling. There was of course lots to catch up on- she hadn't even been sure that we really made it to Beijing on the bikes. Chris was now married, I had been back toSiberia, and Galya was planning to move permanently to Vsyevostopal on the Black Sea where her daughter lived. "I am getting old these days!î" she said, "Living alone in winter is starting to get hard." The understatement was clear to me. Here she was, 75 living alone with daily chores like firewood and water collection, general house maintenance, not to mention the shear miracle of surviving on the meagre Russian pension. To make things harder she had spent a month in hospital recently with a crook liver. How anyone could live like this and still have the energy to look after guests and keep the spirits high was beyond me. It wasn't too long before there was a knock at the door, and in popped a few more familiar faces. There was Baba Sveta with the same naughty, devious smile, maybe minus a few extra teeth, then there was her daughter Lena, and Lena's husband Losha. There were a couple of unfamiliar faces too. They were the wife and son of Sveta's son Szhenka. They had been living in Kiev at the time of our previous stay in Babushkina. "So, how are things? Did you make it? Is Chris Married? Does he have children yet? When are you getting married? You know it must be your turn soon?" Obviously they hadn't been convinced by our phonecall from Mongolia or China. Either that or Baba Galya was 'too deaf' as Sveta put it bluntly. Mid sentence, Baba Galya posed the question: "So, lets drink then?" I gave her a wink. "Just a little!" Then the party was into full swing. The chatter was almost as fierce as the laughter as we revisited old local jokes, and Sveta's grandson and daughter in law were brought quickly up to speed. Lovka sat quietly at the back of the chatter, watching, smiling every now and then showing the glint of his golden teeth. He was the kind of guy that took a lot to lose his temper. In fact I soon came to realize that that was probably a common trait among all my friends in Babushkina. Even during quarrels, a smile and a joke were never far from the surface. At midnight the party broke and I wandered outside in a daze to wash from a few basins of luke warm water. The sun had set, but the sky was still pale blue, and the temperature had only dropped to the high teens. A few random dogs barked, the potato field in front of me lay still. It was so quiet and calm that I was sure I could almost hear the potato plants growing. I shuffled back indoors padding my skin dry. Galya showed me my bed, and I fell heavily into sleep. 24/7/03 The Babushkina circus begins I woke late with the familiar rustle of Galya working away in the kitchen. "Oh Oh Oh, I've got a headache, a Russian hangover" she says as I wander bleary-eyed out of the bedroom to the wash basin. She is chewing on a piece of salted herring and cows tongue. "Oh how I love tongue!" she says with a giggle. At the table a huge pile of fish pancakes, cottage cheese and meat and cheese and bread. Its already back up to 30 degrees outside and I am sweaty, dehydrated, half asleep. I can't eat it. Then before I know it there is a knock on the door, Galya hands me a bag of food and I am ushered out to door to a waiting car. There is Lena and Losha waiting in their dusty Volga. The day has been planned- I am off to the timber mill in a nearby village. Since leaving Babushkina 3 and a half years ago Losha has given up work as a bridge engineer and runs his own timber company. We drive to the village along a dirt track, pause to carefully pass a huge grader that is wavering all over the road. The driver is pathetically drunk. I am reminded over and over again by Losha not to put my seatbelt on. "Donít be silly! Its not needed!" Losha says with a grin as we rocket along free flight over pot-holes. It is offensive to use seatbelts inRussia. Its also unfashionable to use filtered cigarettes, obey road rules of most kinds, and of course use condoms. With an Orthodox idol attached to the dusty dashboard with a piece of chewing gum I am reminded of the certain "freedom" with which Russians choose to live. The village, a collections of haystacks, all cut by hand by scythes, faded log homes, all built upon a slight rise surrounded by forest. The timber mill a ramshackle collection of sheds and saws. Losha smiles, but retains his slow, relaxed cadence, all the time smoking a cigarette. You can see from the sawdust entrenched in is hair and coarse skin that times have been hard. We sit back in the 'office,' a grime encased cabin and he drags in deeply. 'Yes, its pretty hard, we haven't had a day off in three years.' The workers shack is just that- a small log house with poor foundations gradually leaning ever downhill. The workmen are on a break, sitting inside smoking, skin sweating the same grime that seems to lubricate the floor, stove and walls. It is also a makeshift home for some of the workers. The faces of the men are chiseled, and yet their hardened black hands seem somehow gentle as they clutch a cup of tea. One man with bulging, tattooed biceps and a tattered cap lifts a cat into his arms and cradles it with callused hands. Back in the office Lena tells me a little bit about the forestry business. "Others steal forest, we steal forest, that's the way we work. The legal forestry plots are poor, and expensive." The irony only becomes clear a little later when Losha returns later very excited. During the night one of the workers has heard someone cutting trees in the nearby forest. Losha explains with a twinkle in his eye that if we take the forest inspector with us and find the fallen trees, then not only will the traiters be fined up to 100,000 roubles, but most importantly the fallen logs can then be claimed as their own. Later in the day we take the Volga sedan through the forest to the nearby village. Along the way Losha points out countless illegal tracks into the forest where people have bulldozed a path, then stolen forest. We arrive at the village to pick up the forest inspector. He has large shiny cheeks and smiling blue eyes, and dons an old army uniform. Later we wander through the forest searching for the fallen logs. Our only directions are from the worker who heard the sawing and swung his arm in a wide arc in the direction of forest beyond a nearby field. "Where the hell are the logs?" asks the inspector. "Buggared if I know." Says Losha. "Buggared if I know either" says the inspector. They laugh, and smoke. This conversation repeats over and over for about two hours until we give up. Losha is convinced he will find the precious stash later on. When the forest inspector has gone, Lena introduces me to a short, tubby Ukranian. "Here! Have a look at this man! He is our devious forest worker. He steals forest for us. He is a sly one!" He runs back inside to grab his accordion and after brushing the sawdust out of his moustache begins to play in the evening light. All I can do is take the opportunity to take photos. Why on earth the inspector would be interested in a few stolen logs when trucks are driving out daily with thousands of tonnes of forest workers is beyond me. Better just to have a cup of tea and listen to stories of bear hunters during the workers break time. Eventually I arrive back to Babushkina in the late evening where Galya is waiting with the Banya all warmed and ready. I have a short break alone, breathing in some steam, washing away the sweat. Then it is off to Sveta's to celebrate: we are going to watch the documentary all together, and drink a 'little' bit of Vodka. The evening for me is one of excitement. It has been three and a half years since I was in babushkina, and barely a day has passed when the people of Babushkina have not crossed my mind. Now with everything neatly packaged, and having come all the way from Australia to Babushkina (which as a result feels far more remote than it ever did earlier), it is time to celebrate. I guess returning for me is about some kind of closure as well as showing that we really did appreciate our time in the village and all the help. Vova, Cveta's grandson clicks play on the video player, we chink our glasses and things begin. Both Sveta and Galya watch with curiosity, taking in as many details as possible. As they laugh and I translate the narrative into Russian I can't help but feel a wave of happiness raise through me like a shot of vodka. Not long after the film is complete, Sveta's daughter in law runs to the window. "Oh mama! There is a house on fire!" I rush outside and jump in the car with Losha and we race to where half of the village is gathering to watch a wooden house go up in flames. The flames leap high sending a plume of sparks and smoke high into the night sky. There is a hush amongst all bystanders as the fire-engine arrives and a guy jumps out with a hose. He is wearing a shorts and t-shirt and yells at some boys nearby to help with the hose. We watch the house burn to the ground for a couple of hours and the crowd disperses. Losha, Galya and Sveta are far from worried. "The house was recently bought by a local man who wants to build a shop here. He probably just burnt it on purpose. It is cheaper to burn than bulldoze." Says Losha. I walk with Galya back home, have one last glass of Barmatuka and fall into sleep. 25/7/03 A strange day. Somehow I ended up at a wedding. The groom carried the bride across a bridge and back and the best man climbed a birch tree to tie a ribbon onto a high branch. Later from the greasy bonnet of a Lada the bride and groom ate bread and offered vodka around. Another 'Sveta' who Chris and I had spent time with happened to be filming the event with her video-camera. And another friend Misha, a short Ukranian with a strong desire to drink, known as the local 'business man' was there offering his huge black Mercedes as an escort vehicle. Somehow I am meeting everyone, and everyone is happy to see me, but not surprised. 'Sudba,' (destiny) they call it rather casually. Trucks rumble past blaring their horns at the bride. We laugh, drink, then return to Babushkina. The rest of the day more of the same unexpected events, meeting old friends. More marveling at Baba Galyaís fankfurt fingers, salami forearms and overwhelming hospitality. Exhausted, starting to settle in. 26/7/03 The door opened abruptly, the shuffle of Baba Galyaís feet. "Hello, good morning, we are going fishing. Has he left yet?" boomed the familiar voice of Lovka- the local who had taken me to the wedding. "No, No, No, he is still sleeping." Galya replies excitedly. "Lets wake him then!" Lovka shouts. I manage to throw the bed sheet away and sit up in my boxer shorts before they come tearing in. "Tim, we have decided to go fishing, lets go, quick!" Still half asleep, a sticky throat, dull headache, murmuring replies half in english, half in Russian. Still asleep I am escorted to the table. "C'mon! Eat! Eat! Eat! Faster, fishermen donít like to wait!" Galya screeches. Even my mouth doesn't seem to have woken up yet. No problems though, Lovka shovels some omelettes and meatballs into a bag and I am bundled into a car. "You will love it! A real Russian experience!" he says with all four or five silver and gold teeth shining. In his excitement Lovka has of course forgotten to pack any fishing gear himself. No bother, we pick up the other two: Pasha and Viter who are wearing a combination of tattered hunting and fishing clothes. Somehow they belong more on a western set than sitting in a Lada listening to Russian disco pop. We rumble 30 kilometres, I am restrained from putting my seatbelt on. Nearby a small village of four or five house we descend to where a shallow river meanders through the familiar thick forest. Perhaps I had imagined a nice peaceful sitting by the river, relaxing in the sun. This however was nothing of the sort. After leaving the car we trek into the forest and collect an array of long birch branches. Then. stripped down to our underpants and standing in the middle of the river up to waists in water I am introduced to 'Bookhat.' Basically 'whacking' the water with a birch branch to drive fish downstream where Pasha and Viter place nets. 'Ok, start whacking!' Pasha yells. Then we begin this strange ritual of thrashing the peaceful little river to pieces, scaring the crap out of the fish amd no doubt any other animals in the vicinity of a few miles. The sun is searing, the flies clinging to us in clouds. When I show the 20 cent coin sized welt on my back from the recent bite he just shrugs: "its good for you!" A couple of times the 'fishermen' (as opposed to the 'whackers') became a bit enthusiastic and disappeared far downstream, eventually returning like ghost like figures casually strolling upstream in all their clothes in the middle of the river. At one point pasha cuts holes in the bottoms of his gumboots with his axe. "Its so that the water can drain out" he says in all seriousness. The first couple of nets are empty and it seems that the whacking has been in vain. However after a couple of hours we settle into a routine and a few piddly creatures flap about in the net. Eventually we give up. "Where are the fish?" asks Pasha as he has done all day. "Fuck knows" replies Viter. "We must have whacked badly" says Lovka. "Yeah, lets buggar off" says Pasha with a look of wisdom in his eyes. One problem for us remained. Lovka and I were still in just our underpants, and now we were 2km from the car with the flies really starting to get excited. "These flies are OK" says Lovka looking down at a nasty specimen on my thigh, "Yeah, they don't actually puncture your skin, they just bite a chunk of skin off." With no other choice we made a run for it. Basically naked, frantic, following Lovka's wirey figure bounding through thick forest and waist deep grass. Any momentary stop means being attacked. Eventually we arrive back where we sit around a fire sharing food. They talk about tall stories of bear hunters and the pros and cons of drinking vodka. Baba Galya as always is waiting my return when I barge back into her house in Babushkina with a bag of fresh fish. Its only mid afternoon but I collapse onto the bed and nap. When I wake up, it is time for Banya at Sveta's house. Afterall it is Saturday- Banya day. After another night of talking and partying I walk with Baba Galya back to the house. The sun is rising again and the sky has barely dimmed. I fall to sleep and wake only once and walk outside to take a leak. A thick band of fog is drifting across Baba Galya's potato plot. The sky is a mix of pinks and blues. Everything is stationery except for an old van dipping and swaying along a track in the far distance. The sun is rising slowly. The air is fresh. The dogs are even quiet. Yep, I am really here. 27/07/03 Thismorning I boarded the bus from central Babushkina and waved goodbye to Galya and Sveta, Tanya and Lovka. Galya was crying. Somehow I knew that I would never again see Babushkina the same way. Galya will probably be in the Ukraine. And who knows when I will get the chance again. As we pull out I turn to get my last glimpse before all is hidden once again by the forest. Then it is as if it has been just another 'Skaska.' Am now sitting in Vologda, waiting for the train to St Petersburg. Its searing hot and I feel exhausted. I guess now it is time to start wandering slowly home...... .....and time to get ready for the next trip!