Sunday, July 11, 2010

Postcard from the Weirdest Day of My Life

First, you need to imagine 11 people, American and Russian both, with luggage, looking at one ramshackle minivan, trying to figure out how to puzzle themselves into that confined space for a two-hour ride into the hinterlands. Like most things in Russia, it simply gets figured out. Guided by our driver, we crammed ourselves in, Tetris style, luggage on our laps or piled so high that the person sitting nearest had to push the bags back periodically to avoid being buried alive.

Outside our windows, smokestacks gave way to green gardens and heavy patches of forest, punctuated by the occasional gas station or frenetic roadside marketplace. We were headed to the Chkalovsk region, named for its most famous inhabitant, Valery Chkalov, who piloted the first non-stop flight from Russia to North America in 1937.

This is Russia's equivalent of Kitty Hawk, and we were visiting to observe one of our Russian colleague's working projects: An effort to build tourism in the region around this story of its local hero and its setting on the banks of the Volga. This colleague, Maxim (who repeatedly mentioned his love of Ayn Rand), was hosting an annual competition for local children to pay homage to Chkalov's legacy. Last year it was a writing contest. This year it was visual art.

We arrived to learn that a thunderstorm had moved through a couple days earlier. The village was remote enough that they were still awaiting the return of electricity. No matter, though. This was Russia, and they figure things out. There was perfectly adequate daylight for our sessions. The rest we'd think about later.

We were greeted by a shy tour guide in a fantastic pink pantsuit. She gave us a guided tour of Chkalov's family home, a tiny cottage with many original features in tact.

Then it was on to the aviation museum next door for the arts award ceremony. And that's when things became wonderfully, deliciously strange.

Sure, this was a local celebration that would have happened with or without our attendance. But the arrival of Americans was clearly something of a novelty. We were given VIP seats in the front row. Children giggled as they looked in our direction. They referred to the day as an "international event." And then, a town official, in the shiniest suit I've ever seen, sang us a song of welcome.

These young women did a drill-team routine in white go-go boots and vintage stewardess uniforms.

These children in full make-up sang a song of tribute to Chkalov, complete with choreography of arms outstretched like the wings of a plane.

Awards were handed out to the winners, including a special recognition for a pre-teen who connected aviation technology to the rise of the sport of motocross, and entered as her submission a dirty jacket and helmet positioned on a chair. To truly understand the wonder of such a thing, you should know that all the other pieces were either drawings or paintings of planes. The grand-prize winner explored the same themes in quilting.

From there, it was on to a tour of the village's main economic-development engine: an embroidery factory, where every stitch had once been done by hand -- we got a fascinating demonstration of those original methods -- but now, with waning demand for this traditional art form, they've been forced to turn to machines. In the last 10 years, the factory has eliminated 90% of its staff.

Our final stop was what had been, during WWII, a top-secret manufacturing facility for military aircraft. Russia makes no secret of national pride for its war endeavors, and rather than let this one disappear, they've repurposed the building and readapted its technology. Half is now a museum for old jets; the other half currently manufactures what they hope will be the linchpin of their tourism industry . . . The hydrofoil.

Each of us got a 15-minute tour along the Volga in this bad boy, which skimmed the surface of the water at high speed -- a breathless and breathtaking ride that town officials will eventually charge about $35 for, but we happily received with their compliments.


Rosemary said...

Oh my god...I am so, so jealous. Way more jealous than I was about the war reenactors, even. But I have to ask: how did you keep from giggling? I mean, I know that our own local talent shows and kiddie pageants are equally guffaw-worthy, but seriously...those stewardess uniforms. Wow.

This totally confirms my belief that if you're vacationing anywhere and a local festival is going on, you must go. You truly won't understand what matters to people there until you do.

Would love to see pics of the pink jumpsuit and the prize-winning quilt, if you managed to snap some!

Christy said...

Rose, I'll admit: It was painful to suppress a giggle over the guy in the shiny suit. But there was such a sweetness to the kids' displays that we just felt incredibly touched.

I came to realize that the main difference between Russian and American kids (and to some extent the general population) is a total absence of cynicism. Everything is earnest in Russia. Good or bad, you always know where you stand.

I wish I'd snapped more photos, but my camera battery was dead and with all the electricity out, there was nowhere to recharge it. These were all taken on my camera phone (which left much to be desired.)

And I couldn't agree more with your point on local festivals. Honestly, I think the most important thing when traveling is just getting out of the tourist districts, the farther afield the better.

leslie said...

I hope you're comfortable knowing those stewardess drummers will appear in every fever dream you have from this day forward. I'm actually quite envious!

Your comment on cynicism reminds me of a recent conversation with a colleague who has observed that art-making, and by association art-viewing, around the world is so much better than in the US because it's not weighed down and hardened by our cynical skepticism. I envy that, too.

Christy said...

For anyone interested in a brief glimpse of what we experienced there:

tracy said...

Oh man! THAT alone was worth the whole trip! And as I continue my fruitless hunt for a new place to live in OKC, I wonder if I could transport that cute little cottage??