Monday, 14 November 2016

Stories from Russia - Welcome to Chelyabinsk!

On 26th September 2014, I stepped foot in Chelyabinsk before the sun rose above the horizon. Exhausted by all the travel, I was partly dazed when the AIESEC volunteers picked me up from the airport. We drove for about 30 mins before the car pulled up in front of an old building. Daylight hadn’t crept in yet. Upon dialing the flat number at the building entry point, we were let into a dingy stairway that led to my host's apartment on the fourth floor. A young girl opened the door for us. As she welcomed us in, exchanging pleasantries, my eyes drifted across the unusually small living space. Behind the door, there was a coat cabinet and to its left, the toilet and kitchen. A few steps down the walkway were two rooms, one on either side. That was it. It ended where it began. While we were getting introduced, an old lady appeared from one of the rooms, muttering “Dobraye Ootra” as her light eyes fell upon my foreign countenance. 

With no phone or net connection, I was literally disconnected from the world I had known all along. The AIESEC volunteers left me to absorb the new reality with a promise to meet the next day. My host Svetlana was in her mid twenties, with a fragile body and a courteous yet reserved air about her. She was preoccupied in her own world, coming across as someone who was afraid to truly connect with another being. The old lady was her grandmother - her only companion in that big city. Svetlana showed me my room – a carpeted living space with a cupboard, table, chair and a recliner sofa. There was no bed. When I inquired about it, she handed me a blanket and pillow and said that I could make myself comfortable on the sofa. And then she went to sleep. The strangeness was getting to me. The toilet was so small that it could barely accommodate one person. The flush wasn’t working. Tired and distraught, I tried to get some shut eye. 

A few hours later I woke up when Svetlana came into my room to iron her clothes. After she left for work, I spent my time with her grandmother who could not speak or understand English. Babushka, in Russian, means grandmother. The fact that my ability to communicate in Russian was as poor as her English skills, did not deter her from conversing with me. She asked me a lot of questions, all of which I answered with a sheepish smile. When it eventually dawned upon her that the conversation wasn’t moving any forward, she resorted to theatrics. And Voila! It worked. She would pretend to touch the steaming vessel on the stove and go, “hoo..hoo..gariyachi!” and then she would do a little shiver act and ask “holdna?”. Thus, I got my first Russian language lessons; I learnt that “gariyachi” means hot and “holdna” means cold. Soon, we struck a rapport and became genuinely fond of each other. I would even play Hindi songs on my phone and she would dance in the kitchen. She is the sweetest babushka I have ever met.

As time went by, I got used to the toilet. The flush started working and the sofa felt as good as a bed. In the evening, Svetlana and I took a stroll around the neighborhood awash in autumn hues. Though lacking in resourcefulness, she was fluent in English. That in itself was comforting. The AIESEC volunteer never turned up but he arranged my pick up for the welcome party two days after my arrival and I got a new phone connection on the same day. The party was packed with ice breaker games and cultural entertainment. I met more AIESECers and interns from other countries. My life until then seemed hazy and distant, almost like a blurry dream.  We danced without a care in the world into the wee hours of the morning. That night, I shared my bed with an Egyptian, a Chinese and a Russian. Cheers to Global Citizenship!

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