How Visiting Lake Baikal Is An Incredible Spiritual Experience

Failed again at the loving people thing.

Uuuugggghhh.  I’m a little bit sick of myself with this thing, to tell you the truth.  My breakthrough can’t come soon enough.

The weekend after my camping trip to Amga, I visited an ice field, again on the other side of the river.  It was a day trip with a group from school.

I only mention it here because I was on a huge ice field in the middle of a hot summer, walking around on ice that was over a meter thick in some places!  Only in Yakutia.

At the end of the ice field…see the depth of the ice?

Afterwards, we went to a popular swimming spot.  It took about two hours of bouncy, off-road driving to get there but the place was so crowded that we spent less than an hour.

This was after a few of us from the group played around in the cold but refreshing water for about twenty minutes.

Then it was time for my last camping trip of the summer: six days of hiking and camping around Lake Baikal, the oldest, largest and deepest lake on earth, as well as one of the clearest.

I had chosen to do this trip because I wanted to draw closer to God and I find that tends to happen in a big way when I’m immersed in nature.  I was feeling spiritually dry and wanted to rectify that.  Ironically, this was where I love-failed.  Again.

Two days after I finished my summer camp stint in mid-July, I flew to Irkutsk, which is located in south-eastern Siberia and is the jumping off point for visiting Lake Baikal.

To clarify, because this has been a little bit of a problem for my Western friends, Irkutsk has no relation to Yakutsk except that they’re both in Russia.

It’s in a totally different region that isn’t in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) at all.  Flying time between the two is almost three hours so they’re definitely not even close to each other.  This was my first time on an aeroplane since I had arrived in Yakutsk almost one year prior.

If for only this reason I was excited to set off.  I do so love journeys!

The day after I flew to Irkutsk, I met the rest of our group.  In all, we were five campers and one guide.  The other four campers were a German family: mom, dad, their eighteen year old son and sixteen year old daughter.

We spent that first day on a walking tour of the city centre, which was a nice warm up for our upcoming hike.  The next morning, we drove for four hours, including a one-hour lunch stop at a roadside restaurant, to our starting point.

There, we were given our tents, sleeping bags and mats, and the food was divided up among us.  Our guide couldn’t carry all that stuff and I guess porters aren’t a thing for hiking in Russia.

A quick side note.  There at our starting point, a man who lives in the area observed us standing on the path dividing up our provisions and decided to come over for a quick chat.

My Russian is still pretty basic but when I heard, “медведи ходит,” my ears perked up.  As soon as it was appropriate to do so, I asked the guide if that was what I had heard and he confirmed it.

People, the man said that there were bears roaming those woods.

I felt a brief frisson of alarm but quickly dismissed it because what was I going to do, not go on the trip?  Spoiler alert: we saw exactly zero bears for the entirety of the trip.

Lake Baikal was gorgeous.

I had a wonderful time camping, the guide was great, and overall – despite my love-fail – I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  For the first time in my very limited camping experience, I carried all my own gear, for six days no less!

My gear included my clothes and personal items packed into my borrowed hiking rucksack (borrowed it from one of the lovely ladies from my Lena River camping trip), to which I strapped my sleeping bag, mat and tent.

By the way, I set up my tent all by myself every evening when we made camp, except the first evening, thank you very much!  I also carried a small portion of our food.  Our guide estimated that my rucksack weighed about 16 kg.

Me and my borrowed rucksack with sleeping bag packed inside it, and tent and mat strapped to the outside

We spent the next six days hiking a total of almost 60 km.

Looking at a map, the distance we covered looks short, but I assure you that walking 60 km up, down and around hills over six days toting a heavy rucksack all the way is nothing to sneeze at.  My right clavicle and scapula were feeling the effects by day 2 but I found ways to make it bearable and didn’t complain.

After all, our guide had a pack that weighed far more than mine did, and was at least twice its size, since he was carrying most of our provisions plus his own camping gear and personal items.

I enjoyed most of what I saw during those six days.  We walked across forests and mountaintop plateaus.  We picked our way zigzag up steep slopes with me feeling like an awkward mountain goat the entire time.  We walked through the Siberian steppes where there was nothing but grass as far as the eye can see.

At one point, to get around an inconvenient cliff, we even had to shed our pants and boots.

Yup, you read right; we were only wearing our underwear and t-shirts, and had our boots tied to our rucksacks.

It was unexpected but thank God I was fully prepared, if you know what I mean, single ladies.

Then we had to walk about one hundred meters through the bitingly ice-cold water, one hand clinging to the cliff on the left and the other hand gripping a walking stick to help keep us from getting knocked over by the surf, which was pretty rough that day.

I’m marking that experience as one of the two best parts of the entire trip.  It sounds weird but it was pretty cool once I got out of the freezing water.  I prayed my way the entire way through because that water was cold, people!

We came around that cliff pant-less through the cold and crashing surf

After that we had to walk for about an hour up and down more slopes carrying as many tree branches and random pieces of wood as we could manage to bring along because where we were camping that night had no trees nearby.  Oh, the joys of camping!

The other of the two best parts of the trip for me was on the evening of the second day of the hike when we camped on a rise just above a beautiful rocky beach.

The others spent a few hours that night chatting around the campfire but I spent most of that time lying on my belly or my back on the beach watching the lightning from a storm that seemed to be pelting the distant opposite shore.

Meanwhile, the moon shone on us from a perfectly clear sky.  It was phenomenal.

I couldn’t get it all in one photo but the moon was shining to the right in a clear sky while a storm raged to the left

A last point of note is that the water in Lake Baikal is the cleanest natural water I’ve ever encountered.

For the first time in my life, I drank directly from a natural source, unfiltered and unboiled.

You heard me right.

Lake Baikal water is so clean that we refilled our water bottles every day directly from the lake.  Every time, the water was deliciously clean and refreshing, even the one day when there was a lot of algae near the shore so I got some in my bottle.

Yeah, I drank Baikal algae.  I’m fine so it obviously wasn’t a problem.

So I was enjoying my latest foray into nature, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of that beautiful region.  What could possibly be wrong in this picture?

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it.  Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.  Psalm 96:11-12 (NIV)

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What You Need To Know About Visiting The Amga River

It’s official: I love camping.  Like, really love it.  I don’t know how good I am at it but I don’t care, I love it!

Up until the beginning on July, I had been camping a grand total of four times in my life.

The first time was on my eight-day hike up and down Mount Kilimajaro.  The second time was my horrific three-day hike up and down Mount Rinjani.

The third time was early this past June, a couple of weeks after the ice break on the Lena River.  For my fourth time, one colleague and I went a little far afield to a different region of Yakutia.

For months as I was planning my summer activities, people kept telling me that I should visit Amga because it’s one of the most beautiful areas in Yakutia.

Every time I asked where I should go, Amga was always somewhere in the answer.  This was from at least five different people, so I decided to take them seriously.  I checked to see if the company we had previously gone camping with had a trip to Amga.

They did but it wasn’t at all convenient to my working schedule so I put the idea on the back burner and continued making my other summer plans.

Then somehow, one of the young ladies who was working in the sales office at my school told me that her uncle has an excursion company that does weekend trips to Amga and other places around the Republic.

I told her that I would come back to her with a date.  My one colleague (the same one from the previous camping trip; it seems we’re the only intrepid ones) and I settled on the first weekend of July and got our stuff together.

This time, we would be kayaking for three days, plus it was properly summer now, so we packed our swimsuits as well.

On that first Friday of July, we caught a taxi to the ferry, where we met our group for the weekend, lead by our host, the young lady from the sales office.

Unlike my trip to and from Churapcha only a week before, we didn’t take the car ferry this time, but the people ferry.  We loaded all our bags and other gear onto the ferry and about forty minutes later we were meeting our van at Nizhniy-Bestyakh.

A word about our van.  It was an UAZ.

I know, this means nothing to you.  It didn’t mean a thing to me either until I moved to Russia.  The UAZ is the iconic old Soviet-style minivan, in which I had not previously travelled, so I was pretty excited to finally have my first ride in one.

UAZ!  The ride was as bumpy as it is in any other vehicle on rural Yakutian roads

It took us three hours riding in our hired UAZ to get to our starting point on the Amga River, near the town of Amga.

There, we met our guide for the weekend, an experienced outdoors-man called Gosha (it’s the nickname for Yegor; one of these days I should write a post about the wonderful Russian practice of having a shortened version for almost every single name), who would lead us for the weekend.

There at the starting point, we were given our assigned life vests for the weekend, as well as our tents, mats, sleeping bags, double-ended oars and seat cushions.

The seat cushions were actually Styrofoam squares that we positioned in the kayaks to help make sitting for hours while rowing a little easier on our butts.  They helped a little but by the end of the weekend my butt was aching anyway.

We were two to a kayak so we listened attentively as Gosha gave us basic instructions about how to propel and steer the kayak.

Basically, the person in the back steers the vessel based on how they paddle and the person in the front helps with propulsion.  We put all of our gear into garbage bags to protect them, loaded up our kayaks and set off just after 7 pm.

I know, it sounds late to be starting a boating trip but remember that it was still white nights so 7 pm was as bright as 10 am.  Also, we were going less than two hours up the river.

Setting off for our weekend on the river. See what I mean about 7 pm?

I took the rear position in our kayak and my partner and I practiced getting into a rhythm.

Since it was my first time kayaking, it took me a little while to get the hang of steering with my oar but I mostly worked it out before we stopped for the night.

We set up camp while our host and guide prepared dinner.

A quick word about our group.

We were eight women and two men (as usual), with one of those men being a customer and the other being Gosha.  Not surprising.  I still don’t know why most of the men who live in Yakutsk don’t go on these excursions.

Anyway, of the customers, two were a couple (the lone guy and one of the women); four of the women were colleagues and friends; then there was my colleague-friend and me.  We were all assigned cooking duties for the five meals that we would share together.  My partner and I were assigned to prepare Saturday’s lunch.

After a nice getting-to-know-you chat over dinner, we all retired for the night, my partner, our host and me sharing a tent.  Unfortunately, our rest was disturbed in the wee hours of the morning by an inconsiderate late-arriving group of campers; our previously peaceful spot was apparently pretty popular.

We all awoke somewhat out of sorts early the next morning and asked Gosha to please ensure that our campsite for that night was far away from other people.

After having breakfast and packing up camp, we spent the entire day paddling up the Amga River.  It was pure peace and beauty.

The water, sky and grass were really that vivid

We stopped at around mid-morning for our first swim.  I didn’t swim then because I was still wrapping my mind around how cold the water was.

I did sit and stand around in it for a few minutes, while the others skipped stones across the surface of the water.  Then we got back to rowing.

We stopped on an island at around 1 pm and my partner and I prepared our campfire lunch.

Campfire borscht and the requisite tea

Afterwards, we all relaxed and sunbathed for a while before getting back into our kayaks and continuing our journey.  Late in the afternoon, we stopped again to climb a large hill – I guess you could call it a mini-mountain – from the top of which there are spectacular views of the valley and the river.

I confess without shame that I didn’t go all the way to the top.  It was a steep, slippery hill (lots of loose gravel) and I was wearing my crappy old kicks, not my trusty hiking boots.

One of the other ladies and I went most of the way to the top and stopped, sitting on the hillside to wait for the others’ return.  Meanwhile, we snapped lots of photos and got to know each other a little better.

View of the river from the hillside

Finally, we got back into our kayaks for the last push of the day.  I think we were all pretty much done by that time but Gosha, in his commitment to find us a people-free campsite for the evening, wouldn’t stop for the longest while.

My partner and I agreed that our muscles were fine but we were just tired from a full day of kayaking and being in the sun.  When Gosha finally did settle on a spot, we couldn’t complain about his choice.  It was excellent.  There was one other group camping on that stretch of land but they were far enough away that we couldn’t even say hello.

We set up camp again and I finally went swimming for real.  Well, not really swimming because I don’t swim well at all, but I had a blast playing in the water and reveling in the moment.

This was as dark as it got. Look at those colours. So amazing.

Eventually, we had dinner then sat around chatting and drinking wine.  Near midnight, the other camping group set off fireworks (yay!) then I went to bed (or should I say, sleeping bag?) and slept wonderfully.

Almost my first thought when I woke up was how much I love camping and I said a quick prayer to God that, on top of the other things He’s preparing about my husband, I’d really appreciate it if He could please make sure that he’s an experienced camper.

God’s honest truth, that’s how much I love camping now.

I spent most of Sunday morning alternating between enjoying the cold, clear water of  the Amga River – with the fish trying to nibble on my toes if I stood still for too long – and lying on the rocky beach enjoying the sun.

The weather was perfect – not hot or cold – and I genuinely didn’t want the weekend to be over.  That feeling intensified as a herd of grazing horses ran right behind out campsite.

But wonderful weekends come to an end so at around 1:30 pm we packed up camp, loaded our kayaks and set off for a short journey to our ending point, me in the front of our kayak this time with my foot trailing over the side in the cold water for most of the journey.  Within forty-five minutes our time on the river was over and we were waiting for another minivan (not an UAZ this time) to transport us back to Nizhniy-Bestyakh.

I spent those last few minutes frolicking in the water.  By 8 pm, I was back at my flat with promises to one of the ladies to visit her dacha for a cookout that week.  My colleague-friend and I did that, spending a lovely evening there after work just two days later.

My weekend camping on the Amga River brought me rich experiences: kind and generous new acquaintances; a newly discovered love of camping; and invaluable time spent outdoors, in God’s creation.  There was absolutely nothing I would have changed about that weekend and I thank God that He gave it to me.

For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  Romans 1:20a (ESV)

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Teaching in Churapcha – How To Successfully Teach In A Rural Village

Since I moved to Yakutsk one year ago, I’ve spent most of my time in and around the city.

Of course, I’ve ventured out for various adventures but, other than brief camping trips, I’ve always returned to my flat at the end of the day.

So there I was, teaching summer camp in the city back in mid-June, when my department head asked me if I could go to a village called Churapcha, which is a few hours away from Yakutsk, to spend a week teaching summer camp there.

Side note for you: several weeks after I returned from Churapcha, I learned that it is located on the Kolyma Highway, which connects Yakutsk to Magadan.

This highway is called “the Road of Bones” because, as Wikipedia puts is, “the skeletons of the forced laborers who died during its construction were used in many of its foundations.”

Wow.  OK, back to the matter at hand.

As weird as it may sound to my new readers, I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of change

Like, in that first split second when I hear of a possible change in my circumstances, my initial inclination is usually to say no.  It’s weird and stupid, I know.

I have no idea why it happens but I’ve come to realise that people as a whole don’t like change so I’m putting it down to that. 

In any case, I was just running into a class when my supervisor asked me to take on this assignment so I asked her to give me until after class to answer her.

That way, I bought myself fifty minutes to ponder the idea and get used to it.  I quickly prayed about it and found myself warming to the idea, so I bounced it off my sounding board, and by the time the fifty minutes were over, I wanted details of what to expect but was pretty much on board with the idea.

There were two reasons for this.  First and foremost, I moved to Yakutsk to work for my employer.  If they needed me to go to the far reaches of the republic for a week in order to do that, then that was what I needed to do.

Secondly, it occurred to me that this was a wonderful opportunity to see a little bit of life outside the city for more than just a day.

The details would have been a little bit daunting if I hadn’t already made up my mind to take the assignment.  I would likely be the only teacher going to the village, so I was totally on my own with my severely limited Russian language skills.

I would stay with a host family, where it was possible that I would have to use an outside toilet, as is the case in many rural villages.  And I would be teaching a group of children for three hours in the morning and a group of teens for three hours in the afternoon.

Well, the outside toilet didn’t stump me because just two years I had to use a roach-infested squat toilet every day for several months, so I figured that was no biggie.

I did balk a little at teaching teens (I so much prefer teaching children) and at having to teach six hours per day, plus preparation.  For you office workers, that kind of time commitment may sound like no big deal but the teachers out there feel me.

In any case, I took on the assignment and prepared as many of my materials as possible ahead of time, including gathering all the teaching aids I thought would come in handy.

Arrangements were made and I packed my things.  By this time, the local teacher who had covered the first week of camp in that village had reported back that the hosts’ home was very nice and there was no outside toilet.  However, I asked her not to give me details because I didn’t want to set any particular expectations.

On the last Sunday of June, I got home from yhyakh at around 4:30 am, threw my stuff in the washing machine and had a shower, then I got about four hours of sleep.  I got up and put the finishing touches on my preparations to be away for a week, and got into my chartered taxi at around 11 am.

We set off for the car ferry, which we took across the Lena River to Nizhniy-Bestyakh.  On the ferry, I got out and, of course, attracted some attention.

I ended up chatting with a very nice woman and her husband for the entire one hour of the ferry ride.

Then I got back into the car and it was time for my first extended experience on rural Yakutian roads.

People, in my admittedly limited experience, long distance taxi and bus drivers in Yakutia do not play.  It seems to me that many of the rural roads are unpaved (I’ve only been on a few of these roads so I can’t speak with definitive authority about it) but the drivers make no allowances for that.

They drive fast and they drive hard and all passengers can do is uncomplainingly hang on for the ride.

Surprisingly, on this particular ride, I was able to fall asleep in the back row of the station-wagon, likely because I was exhausted from only getting four hours of sleep over the previous thirty-six hours.

I had brought a book to read but I dismissed the idea of doing so without even trying; although I never get car sick, I didn’t want to take a chance what with all the bouncing that was happening in that car.

I arrived at my hosts’ home at around 4 pm and was pleasantly surprised by the gorgeous home that greeted me.  I spent the next week very comfortably ensconced there, being treated like an honoured guest by the host family and having many entertaining and interesting conversations at their kitchen table, where they fed me abundantly.

They wouldn’t even allow me to wash a dish.

Views of the various buildings on my hosts’ property. At top: view of the main house from the backyard, plus their traditional house just to its right. Bottom left: the storage house and garage.  Bottom right: the traditional house up close.

For the next five days, I caught a taxi each morning with one of the family members to the building where our classes were held.  There, I happily taught eight girls between the ages of seven and eight for three hours.

I think I enjoyed our classes as much as they did; their energy and attitude were wonderful.  At 1 pm, I would wrap up their class and take an hour for lunch; the host family always had that waiting for me, too and I didn’t once in the entire week have to spend my own money on food.

Then I’d return to my classroom where I’d teach a group of eleven teens, between ages twelve and fifteen, for three hours.  I tried to make these classes engaging and fun, too, but five days of these lessons reinforced for me that teaching children is my jam right now.

Whereas I feel energized after teaching kids, I feel positively drained after teaching teens and adults.  I have no idea why that is and have tried to explain it to myself but I’ve decided to just accept that, at least for now, it’s my preference.

After my afternoon class was finished, I would return by taxi with one of my hosts to their house, where I would spend some time preparing for the next day’s lessons and socialising with my hosts.

Then I’d sleep like I was in the Olympics.  Best week of sleep I’ve had in ages.  Maybe it was the country air and living with people.  Who knows?

On the last day of classes, Friday, I took my luggage with me in the morning, since one of the young women from the host family and I would take a taxi back to Yakutsk immediately after classes were over.

The grandpa of one of my little morning girls gave me a lovely gift, as did the girls from my teens class.  The mom from my host family also gave me two jars of homemade jam.  This may sound like a little thing but it was a huge deal for me because I love Yakutian homemade jam so much that I’m unable to eat the store-bought kind anymore; I just can’t stomach it.

My gifts from Churapcha

Another station-wagon taxi picked us up and we set off again for Nizhniy-Bestyakh, bouncing over the rural roads while the driver blasted dance music on the radio.  I laughed out loud when a Jamaican club song came on because what were the odds of a Jamaican song coming over the radio of a random taxi in rural Yakutia, for goodness’ sake, while a random Jamaican is in that taxi?

Taxi guy securing my stuff to the roof

Anyway, by 11 pm I was back in my flat and feeling good from a week spent with a wonderful family in a very friendly village, with great kids, doing what I thought was a good job for my company (subsequent parental feedback confirmed that).

All in all, I was really happy that I didn’t give in to that first instinct to say no to this experience because it turned out to be so much better than I could have ever hoped, thanks to the truly excellent people I met that week.  After all, where would I be without new experiences and beginnings?

The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.  Proverbs 16:9 (NASB)

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Celebrating Yhyakh – Summer Solstice In Yakutia

I know, you’re wondering about that word, right?  Don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a second.

So, I attended my first summer solstice festival at the end of June.  I’m not quite sure where to start in telling you about it.  I suppose the best place is the beginning.

I think that to most people in the world, ‘summer solstice‘ means nothing.  Close to one of the Earth’s poles, it means the longest day of the year, when the sun never truly sets. In Yakutia, it’s marked by a festival called “yhyakh.”  I’m still working on the pronunciation myself; just try to say it how it looks.

Yhyakh takes place over two days and happens at different times during the month of June in the towns and villages across the Republic of Yakutia.

In Yakutsk where I live, I think yhyakh is on the weekend closest to the actual summer solstice.  This year, it took place on June 23 and 24.

There’s a huge field just outside of the city that’s the designated yhyakh staging ground.  My understanding is that nothing else takes place there, and  I can see why.  It’s such a large event that permanent structures have been erected at the venue.  Some families bring their children, set up tents and camp out all day and night.

When my company started compiling the list of team members who would attend the festival, there wasn’t even a question about my participation.  In fact, it had been a foregone conclusion from several weeks before because I was performing there.

“Performing?  Performing what?” you ask.  I was playing the khomus!  Three times!  I know, right??  Our group of three khomus players (one khomus teacher and two students) played on different stages at the festival.

But, wait, I get ahead of myself.

We started learning to play in earnest back in March.  At that time, there was no talk or intention of performing anywhere; we just wanted to learn how to play.

After a few weeks of lessons, the idea of performing at yhyakh was introduced by our teacher, and she’s such a positive person with so much confidence in our budding skills that we agreed.

Of course, performing there meant getting decked out in traditional dress.  We went off to a dressmaker, bought fabric and accessories and within three or four weeks of deciding that we would participate in yhyakh, our dresses were made and our outfits were ready.

The only thing I was missing was the traditional boots.  I hadn’t seen a pair that I really liked and couldn’t bring myself to buy a pair that I thought was just kinda OK (I’m serious about shoe buying that way).

In the end, I wore a pair of ankle boots, which was perfectly acceptable since many young Sakha women these days wear stilettos with their traditional dress.

Me in traditional dress, including boots borrowed just for this photo

I will say that our traditional dress also wasn’t completely traditional, in that the dresses are usually ankle length, made of un-patterned material and have no body definition.  But we’re young and trendy so we didn’t even consider all of that.

Also, a major part of the costume is the jewellery.

As we’re in Yakutia, where people prize the silver that is mined here, the real traditional jewellery is beautifully ornate and made of solid silver.  That’s very expensive so there wasn’t even a question of buying the real traditional jewellery for yhyakh.

But, of course, there are great alternatives.  No, not fake silver.


In fact, some alternative versions are even made of wood and some are made of horse hair.  The final part of the outfit is a small cross-body bag that you can put any small thing into.  I kept my khomus in mine.

Anyway, back to the business at hand.  We met at school early and took a hired bus to the field outside of town.  Luckily, we were ahead of most of the traffic so it didn’t take us too long to get there.  As we settled in at our base for the day (a semi-permanent tent on the outskirts of the event site), I marvelled at the peaceful atmosphere.

IMG_1647 (1)
View from the location on the lake where our tent was pitched. Beautiful. Peaceful.
Headlines on the day of yhyakh.  I just couldn’t read the stories.

The peace struck me in particular because I couldn’t help but compare it to the daily news bulletin I had just pulled up in my email.

It told of mayhem all over the world.

I read the headlines and decided that I was more interested in my peaceful surroundings rather than all the craziness happening outside of it; I deleted the email.

I spent my first hour or so at yhyakh exploring the grounds a little bit with a couple of colleagues, and observing various rituals, including people asking for blessings at a holy tree.

I also found Masha!  I’m always so happy to see her.

After that it was time for the opening ceremony.  I had a pretty good vantage point sitting on the grass just at the perimeter.  I didn’t understand most of what was happening so I looked on as a dispassionate observer.

Yakut people are into shamanism so there were several shamans doing stuff with a fire.  There were also lots of children and teenagers dancing in formation and a few animals were lead through the proceedings.

It was all quite a spectacle.

Part of the opening ceremony

I spent the rest of the morning walking around a bit more.  As we walked around, I attracted some attention, as I reasonably expected.  I’m a Black women in a place where Black people are scarce, and I was fully decked out in traditional dress.

Many people stopped to ask for selfies with me throughout the entire day.

By early afternoon, our little group of khomus players had to find the first stage we were playing on, which was the mayor’s stage.  I know, right??

Scary!  But relax.  We weren’t playing for the mayor himself.  It was just one of several stages around the event ground, but still, it was a pretty major one and this was our first public performance.

After about an hour of waiting around for our turn, we finally ripped off the bandage and did our thing.  We did alright, the crowd smiled encouragingly at us, and the mayor’s people gave each of us a lovely gift.

Afterwards, we walked back to our base and quickly had some munchies, then we were off to our second performance at the Khomus Museum stage.  I was a little nervous about this one because it was the Khomus Museum!

But we did our best and were met with delight, again after waiting around for about an hour.  Local people understandably love to see foreigners embracing such an important part of their culture.

By the time we finished there and went back to our base, it was after 7 pm.  All of us from school were planning to have dinner together as a group but everything wasn’t quite ready yet so a few of us headed off again to the nearby track to watch horse races.

There, I saw Masha and Marat and their son, as well as one of my summer camp kids.  Meanwhile, the horse races were entertaining but it was the children playing accompanying music on drums and traditional instruments, including the khomus, that I really enjoyed.

Eventually, we returned to base again and had dinner, after which we did our last performance of the day for our colleagues.

Then we did an okhuohai dance in our tent.

This is a traditional Yakutian circle dance with an okhuohai caller (someone singing lyrics) and the other participants repeating the lyrics, with arms linked together and moving clockwise in a circle.

I participated in the dance.  Of course, I have no idea what was being said so I didn’t actually sing.  It was my first time participating in an okhuohai dance, although I’d seen it several times previously.

A couple of hours later, after walking around some more and buying myself an ice cream, it was time for the sun ceremony.

Yakut people believe on receiving energy and good luck from the power of the sun, so a very important part of yhyakh is the ceremony that welcomes the new sunrise.  Seeing as how we were still firmly in the middle of white nights and the sun hadn’t really set, sunrise was officially at around 2:30 am.

We went off to the designated field, where there were more rituals performed by the shamans and dancers.  It was a little cloudy that morning so by the time the ceremony was done and people were embracing the power of the sun it was about the same level of brightness.

This was followed by a gigantic okhuohai dance.  And suddenly, for us, yhyakh was over.  By 3:30 am we had packed up our stuff and were dispersing towards our various rides home.

Sun ceremony on a partly cloudy day

Afterwards, I found out that I had somehow made it onto social media at least twice with my participation in this very important local cultural event.

Is my local social media star on the rise?  I kid, but I truly was flattered.

Overall, I enjoyed my first yhyakh experience.  I really liked my dress, my beads and my bag; I had fun playing the khomus after the first nerves passed; and I enjoyed the spectacle of the various ceremonies that take place and are important to many of the people who have become important to me.

But the experience pushed me that much closer to God, appreciating my ability to worship the Creator and my dependence on Him as my source, instead of His created things.

They gave up the truth about God for a lie, and they worshiped God’s creation instead of God, who will be praised forever.  Amen.  Romans 1:25 (CEV)

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The Stresses of Teaching – My Personal Reflections of Teaching Overseas

I’m back!

And I’ve gotta say, July was pretty darn great overall.

There’s quite a bit to update you on: the local summer solstice festival; a week spent living in a semi-rural village; a weekend camping trip in another part of Yakutia; the end of summer camp and, therefore, the real official end of my school year; and a hiking and camping trip in south-eastern Siberia. I’ll catch you up over the next month.

Today, I’ll start in the middle of it all with the end of summer camp and what that meant for me.

I taught camp for a total of six weeks, starting the week after the school year ended. Basically, I had a long weekend off then camp started.

So you see that I began at a disadvantage in terms of being rested. Most of us did.

Surprisingly for me, summer camp was pretty draining in itself. I hadn’t expected that, because after the first two weeks, I was working shorter hours than during a normal school term and preparation was minimal.

Despite this, those last couple of weeks wrung out just about everything that I had left in me. I think it was a cumulative effect from the first four weeks of camp.

Perhaps I should have expected it, because what kid wants to be in class on a bright summer day?

To be honest, the majority of my groups were pretty well-behaved and keeping their attention wasn’t too difficult, although it did require a lot of effort through extra activities.

But there was always that one badly-behaved group that lay all my preparation to waste, no matter what tactics I tried. The stress of teaching and managing those groups, coming at the end of a long school year, took everything I had left to give. Still, I managed to get through it.

Despite my powering through, by the time the first two weeks of July – and the last two weeks of summer camp for me – rolled around, I was absolutely exhausted.

As much as I love my job and my place of work, it’s not easy to work intensively and almost nonstop for the better part of a year. This was why I had to take a break from writing for the month of July; I was running on fumes.

Since the early days of this blog, I’ve found that I spend quite a bit of time composing posts in my head as things are happening, so that by the time I have an opportunity to actually write it all down, the words tend to flow out of me.

This had stopped happening and I found myself repeatedly staring blankly at my laptop screen, with not a word ready to come even though I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.

Thankfully, the break worked. By the third week of July, I found myself writing in my head again. Hooray!

So, having said all of that and after all these months of working in what is my first really proper teaching job, I think it’s time to pause and reflect on what I’ve learned and how I’ve conducted myself.

As would be reasonably expected, I’ve done a good job in some areas, a not so good job in some areas, and a bad job in other areas. Let’s start with the bad stuff.

I’m still struggling to love people.

Uuuuggghhh. I don’t have to deal with this issue often because I usually either like most people I meet or I’m neutral towards them.

I very rarely dislike people and they very rarely get under my skin.

In other words, I’m a pretty peaceful and accommodating person, generally speaking.

I say all of this to make the point that, although I’ve basically forgotten about the Toxic Ones themselves, the memory of my love failure with them remains front and centre in my awareness because I know it’s a weak area that I need to overcome.

The issue recently came up for me again on a trip I took but I’ll tell you about that in a couple of weeks when I get to that story. Suffice it to say that the incident showed me that God still has a lot of work to do on me in that area.

A lot.

That’s the bad.

The not so good has been haunting me, too. It’s that I haven’t done a thing to actively share the gospel.

I do the normal things, like try to live my life in a way that is Christlike so that people see a difference in their interactions with me. I also don’t make a secret of the fact that I love God far beyond anything or anyone here on Earth and that Jesus is my main squeeze.

But I haven’t proactively done anything to share my faith with anyone, and I’m not sure that I’ve actually served anyone this year, which is what I believe God has sent me out into the world to do.

I’m going to have to rectify that.

As for the good, I know without a doubt, and without needing anybody to tell me, that I did a good job at work this past year.

I worked hard, people. I worked long hours and I put my all into those long hours that I worked.

It wasn’t because I was trying to impress anyone, because I wasn’t. It was for two reasons.

First, this company went through the time and expense of recruiting me from halfway around the world. The least I could do was to show that their decision to take a chance on me (a teacher of very little experience) was not misplaced.

Second, I know without the slightest doubt that my being in this place at this time is at God’s behest and therefore I took His word very seriously:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)

That was my main motivator this year, and it says a lot about my growth that I needed no more than that because in my early days of working, during my people pleasing days, I was ridiculously dependent on external motivation and validation.

Not so now, thank goodness.

I can also say after the intensity of this year that I believe I’ve grown a lot as a teacher because of my students and because of the feedback of my colleagues.

I’ve continued to learn how to adapt my methods to fit my students’ needs and I actively seek improvement feedback from my colleagues. And that’s another thing: I’m not afraid of criticism the way I used to be.

In fact, I now welcome it, even if it’s not meant to be constructive.

All in all, I’m happy the school year is over and that I’m now on vacation because it gives me a chance to explore a little bit more of where I live and beyond, to recharge my depleted batteries and to get my creative juices flowing again.

I’m also happy with my overall performance this year, even as I acknowledge my failures and am ready to work with God to do something about them.

Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love. Micah‬ ‭7:18‬ ‭(NASB‬‬)

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Camping By The Lena River – What You Need To Know

We woke to a windy first morning of camping on the Lena River.  I mean, windy.

So much so that there wasn’t a mosquito in sight (or bite; hee hee, see what I did there?) for the entire day.

I’ll say it right now: the wind was cold and it made the river rough but I’d take those conditions over a swarm of mosquitoes any day, no matter how much repellent I have.

Additionally, we’re into white nights now in this part of the world.  That is to say, the sun technically sets but it doesn’t actually get dark.  This has been happening for weeks now and I’ve been sending my sister pictures of 2 am looking like 7 am, and blowing her mind all over the place.

At this point, 3 am is like 9 am now, with the sun shining brightly and intensely.

The change wasn’t even really that gradual; it just seemed to start happening suddenly several weeks ago.  At first, it caused my sleep to be disturbed then I started using an eye mask to keep the light out and I slept fine again.

Now, I find that I’m at the point where I don’t need the eye mask at all and I sleep perfectly normally and wake feeling fully rested.

This is where my ability to sleep in any condition, as long as I’m tired and not enraged, comes in handy; even a few locals have told me that they suffer from insomnia for the entirety of the white nights period, which is two or three months by my estimation.

I say all this to say that, when the sunlight hit our yellow tent on our camping trip, the brightness of everything should have woken me very early on both mornings but I was so cosily cocooned in my very comfortable sleeping bag, with the hood pulled  over my head, that the light was of no concern to me.

Once I rolled out of my tent, and after a quick visit to the toilet and a wash of my face at the river bank (the cold water felt wonderful on my face), this was the peaceful view that I sat down to absorb on the first morning.

Ah, peace and beauty

After a while, others started stirring in the camp, lighting the fire and getting breakfast started.  My tent mate and I wandered over to help but they told us to relax.

So I pulled out the book that I had brought with me and settled in to get some reading done.  It’s a translated collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol, a Russian author from the early 1800’s and it’s quite good.

Reading Gogol after breakfast

After breakfast and cleanup, we lazed around a little before packing up our gear and loading the boats.  By this point, I had added my fleece under my rain jacket because the wind had brought a definite chill with it.  I was thankful for this before long.

The water was rough because of the wind and it was hard going with the oars.

Pretty soon, our guide turned on the motor and we zoomed off.  I don’t think any of us were sad that we didn’t have to row, even though speeding through the waves meant that we got soaked on every area of our bodies that wasn’t covered in waterproof material.

The wind also felt colder as we sped through the water.

In fact, my hands were cold enough that, when we passed a huge piece of unmelted ice left on the river bank from the ice drift a couple of weeks before, I didn’t even think to ask the guide to stop so I could take a picture.

I didn’t trust that my hands would safely pull my phone from my pocket and snap the photo without dropping my phone into the river.

Since our boat was one of two with an engine, our guide dropped us off on the island where we were camping for that night and headed back out to tow one of the other boats.

While they were gone, us five women changed out of our wet pants (thank goodness I had brought my warm winter tights), started gathering firewood and got a fire going (the older woman from our boat managed that part; I’ve never started a campfire in my life).

For the rest of the day, most of the ladies roamed the island picking spring onions, which they will freeze and use throughout next winter.

I nibbled a few as someone handed them to me to taste.  They look like grass and they’re really tasty but I still didn’t pick any for myself.  A few people also took one of the boats out and went fishing.  Unfortunately, they didn’t catch anything.

Meanwhile, I hauled out my book and pitched up on a convenient log near the campfire, settling in to read.

This was how my trusty rain jacket got burned.  An ember from the fire popped and landed on my jacket, unseen by me since my attention was absorbed by the book.

It managed to burn a small hole before I noticed the smoke and shook it off.  I wasn’t happy about it but what could I do?

It was nobody’s fault and embers from a campfire is a part of camping.  When I got back to town I stuck some tape on it and it will be my reminder of my first river camping trip.

One observation I made that day on my jaunts to the toilet in the woods and in my walking around was that there was old horse poop from the winter all over the place.

It was amazing to think that horses roamed these islands during the winter months when they were all connected by the frozen river.

One of our group told us that the horses instinctively knew when the ice would break and they made their way back to the mainland before that happened so they wouldn’t be stuck on an island until winter again.

I also spent the afternoon and evening chatting with others in broken English and Russian, with our English-speaking guide translating as needed.

At one point, I took a quick nap in our tent then went back to walking around our section of the island taking photos.  I couldn’t stop myself because it was so beautiful and peaceful and I kept trying to capture that feeling.

My mind was totally free and clear of past ruminations, current concerns or future plans; I was fully present in every moment I spent on that island.

The last thing I saw before I went to bed

Again, I brushed my teeth by the river bank, splashed my hands in the cold water, and went to bed sometime after 11 pm, hoping that I wouldn’t need to go to the bathroom in the night.

That was a vain hope; it was really cold that night and even my cosy sleeping bag didn’t fully keep the cold out.  Not even my (very cold) nose peeked out of the bag.

I awoke some time around 1 am, I think (based on the level of “darkness”), with an urgent need to pee.

When I pulled my sleeping bag from over my head, I felt that the air in the tent was cold and I really didn’t want to get up.  However, after trying to convince myself that I could hold it for a few hours, I eventually had to unzip myself and head to the woods.

On my walk across the field to the woods, I lifted my head and saw a wondrous sight.  There, directly in front of me and sitting low on the horizon, was the moon, huge and orange and in the gibbous phase, and seeming to slightly shimmer against the faintly lit sky.

I wanted so badly to dash back to the tent and grab my phone to try and capture the moment, but I really needed to pee.  Also, I didn’t want to disturb my tent mate any more than I already had when I was exiting the tent.

Going back in for my phone, exiting again and going back again would have been a bit much, I thought.  I wouldn’t want anyone to disturb my sleep like that.

So I had to do what people did before everyone had cell phones with cameras; I had to appreciate what I was seeing as I was seeing it and commit it to memory, one that I will pull out to enjoy again and again in the future.

I crawled back into the tent and settled back into my sleeping bag, colder than when I had awoken but so much happier.

The next morning, our second and final morning of camping, the ladies from our boat were assigned to help with breakfast.  That’s how I spent the next couple of hours: gathering wood for the fire, stirring mashed potatoes with sautéed vegetables and chopped fresh spring onions mixed in, and doing whatever else I was asked to do.

Helping make breakfast

After breakfast, we did the washing up, then I relaxed on our dining table/tarp on the ground with my book.

We had a couple of hours before we would leave and I spent them relaxing, alternately reading and napping right there in the sun.

A couple of the ladies stripped off their pants and ran into the cold water.  More power to them; I do not like immersing my body in cold water and felt no compulsion to join them.

Eventually, we started packing up.  We loaded up the boats and pushed off from the island sometime after 2 pm, headed back to the city.

Honestly, I didn’t want to leave.  I could have happily spent another few days out there, immersed in peace and beauty.

About two hours later, we pulled up onto a concrete embankment back in the city and suddenly my idyllic weekend was over.

I loved every minute of those forty-eight hours spent on the river.  I have not one regret or complaint about that entire weekend; not the wind and cold, not my burnt raincoat, not having to go to the bathroom in the woods, nothing.

I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful experience and I’m eager to repeat it.  How can anyone see all this and doubt?

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.  Romans 1:20 (NIV)

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You Need To Bring These Required Camping Supplies For The Lena River

Over the first weekend of June, right after the term ended, I went on my first real camping trip.  I’ve camped twice before but this was a more authentic level of camping that I hadn’t experienced yet.

The idea first came up a week and a half before the trip was set to begin.  One of the members in our excursions WhatsApp group posted an announcement about this trip being put on by a local tour company, and it caught my interest.

I admit to being a little bit apprehensive about it because it was a camping trip on the Lena River, which would require us to row boats.

Seeing as I haven’t exercised since I left Jamaica almost a year ago, my strength level isn’t where it used to be and I was concerned that my arms wouldn’t keep up under the strain.

But a colleague of mine encouraged me away from that line of thinking, saying that my arms were stronger than I thought since we had been on a quest together several weeks before where I had helped to lift four other women over an obstacle.  I took her point and asked the person who posted about the trip to sign me up.

The trip was arranged by the same company with which I had gone hiking on the two previous weekends.  They had proved their professionalism and dependability during those two hikes so I had no concerns in that direction.

Meanwhile, I started debating with myself about an entirely different subject: whether or not to buy water boots.

It was recommended that we bring water boots but I didn’t trust this recommendation entirely since we had been recommended (not by the company) to wear our heavy coats and ski pants on the last hike, which would have left me roasting like I was in a furnace.

Thankfully, I had ignored that recommendation, but I wasn’t sure if I should ignore this one.

I dithered about it for a few days, even going to the local Chinese market (it’s a big flea market where everything is sold cheaper than in normal stores) on the Sunday before the trip to check out the water boots there.

I ended up not buying anything, still not convinced that I needed them.

However, a day later I saw a post on Instagram from the tour company showing pictures from last year’s trip and their preparations for this year’s trip and I immediately realised that water boots weren’t an option; they were a necessity.

Off I went to the Chinese market again that Tuesday morning, where I bought a pair of water boots in record time and hurried back to school for my next class.

I spent the rest of the week mentally debating what I should bring with me.

On Thursday evening, after our trip to the challenge course and to a shop across the street to pick up mosquito repellent, I finally started packing my backpack.

A word on Yakutian mosquitoes: they’re huge.

These are the biggest mosquitoes I’ve ever seen in my life.

They’re also numerous in the summer.  They land on you in droves and it makes no sense to try to bat them away because they come right back.

On the other hand, they’re slow.

When they land on you, it takes them a second to work themselves up to actually penetrating your skin, so you have time to get rid of some of them before they do damage.

At least, that’s been my experience.  So mosquito repellant was a must.  Another plus about these mosquitoes is that they don’t carry diseases.

Other than that, I packed a few toiletries, warm tights to sleep in since it would be cold at night, a couple of shirts and my fleece sweater.

I wore my rain jacket since it’s also a very effective windbreaker and I figured I’d need it at the start of our journey.

We met on Friday evening at the same rendezvous spot we had used for our two previous hikes, and set off at about 5 pm for an hour-long bus ride to our starting point.

Only one of my colleagues and I joined this excursion, although our group for the weekend ended up being twenty-two people in all, including three children.

Oh, plus one dog.

After driving on the two-lane highway for a while, we pulled off the main road and drove across a field, eventually ending up at our starting point on the river.

There, we alighted from the bus with our luggage, sprayed ourselves with mosquito repellant – they’re thick by the river – and got divided up into groups for each boat, of which there were four.

My colleague and I, plus two young women who had won the trip as a prize for coming first in a museum quest, and an older lady, formed a group, along with the only English-speaking guide.

I had actually met this guide a few months before when I went to their office to enquire about summer excursions.  I was happy to see him on this trip because I hadn’t expected there to be any English speakers.

So here are some statistics about our group.

Of the twenty-two people, six were men.  Of these six men, four were guides and two were customers.  Of the remaining sixteen people, three were children; there was one teenage boy, one teenage girl and a boy under ten years old.  The rest of the thirteen people were women.

And, of course, we had the dog, Belta, which belongs to one of the guides.

After we were assigned to our groups, we proceeded to pack our backpacks into large waterproof bags, and took turns pumping up and assembling our assigned pontoon boats (they’re boats in a bag, really).

After this, the luggage was loaded onto the boats, wrapped in tarp and tied to the frame of the boat.  Then we all waded into the water, now decked out in our water boots, and climbed aboard.

My colleague and I were assigned to sit in the front on either side, which I didn’t mind at all.

Two of our guides wrapping our bags in tarp and tying it to the frame of our assigned boat

About an hour after the bus dropped us off, we set off up the river.

We didn’t go far that evening, travelling for only about forty-five minutes before we rounded an inlet and pulled up on an island.

After unloading the baggage, we were given our sleeping bags and mats  and our tents, which our guide showed us how to set up.

We also took note of the woods in the distance that would serve as our bathroom for our stay on that island.

Row, row, row your boat! Also, that’s Belta perched near the front of the boat

For the rest of the evening, we settled into camp, walking around and taking photos.  Some of the women, a couple of whom I later learned were affiliated with the company, fixed dinner and we all ate around a communal “table”, which was one of the tarps spread out on the ground.

During that meal, we all introduced ourselves.

Dinner table fit for 22 eager campers

Sometime after 11 pm, my colleague and I ventured into the woods for a last bathroom visit then brushed our teeth at the edge of the river using water scooped into our hands, before settling into our tent for the night.

The children were still running around and playing and I hoped that they wouldn’t be at it for too long so that my sleep wouldn’t be disturbed.

I needn’t have worried.

I cocooned myself into my sleeping bag and was unaware of every sound and movement until seven hours later when my tent-mate got up for the day.  Even then, I still dozed for about thirty minutes more before I got up myself.

So far, I had not one regret about going on the trip.  I was happy to be in the middle of God’s nature and my soul felt like it was breathing deeply for the first time in ages.

But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.  Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you; and let the fish of the sea declare to you.  Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?  Job 12:7-10 (NASV)

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Is Your Heart All In With Life? Lessons From A Russian Rope Course

The day after I taught my last class of the school year, almost two weeks ago, two of my colleagues and I went off to our local challenge course.

For about a month, there had been talk in our excursions WhatsApp group about going there, and we finally decided that since the three of us were the only ones who were definitely interested, we’d just go.

I was a little surprised at myself for expressing interest in this type of activity.

I did one several years ago in Jamaica and, back then, challenge courses weren’t my thing.  Hanging from a harness in mid-air while trying to navigate obstacles isn’t something that’s ever been high on my to-do list.

But back then, I ended up doing the challenge course because the person I was there with insisted that I was too fear-riddled and too much of a killjoy to try it.

So I did it, and tried not to rub their nose in their disdain while I did it.

Still, I don’t recall enjoying it and I certainly had nothing to prove to anyone this time around.  Therefore, I wasn’t at all sure why I wanted to go.

In any case, on Thursday morning a week and a half ago, I met my colleagues at school and we set off on the forty-five minute drive to the park, which is located in the same village where I had gone to watch the ice drift not even two weeks before.

The weather had changed quite a bit by then.

It was relatively warm and the capriciousness of spring seemed to be behind us.

As we drove toward our destination, I even felt a twinge of excitement at the coming experience.

When we arrived at the park, we paid our entry fees, got decked out in harnesses and helmets, and went through training.

This included learning the right way to clip and unclip ourselves to and from the various lines that we would traverse through the treetops.

It also included learning the right way to go along the zip lines, and how to tell the maximum number of people that were allowed at one time on one obstacle at any given section of the course.

We were also told that there were four different courses to go through, with increasing difficulty levels.  Green was the easiest course; blue was more difficult than green; red was more difficult than blue; and finally, the most difficult course was black.

They all took place entirely in the trees.

We set off to the starting tower that marked the beginning of every course.

As we began the green course on the lowest starting level of the tower, I had no trepidation about it, although I wasn’t brimming with confidence either.

I suppose I would say that I was ready to give it a go.  I was in the middle of our group, which is to say that one of my colleagues went on each obstacle before me and one came after me.

We kept this formation throughout the entirety of our time at the park, except towards the very end, but we’ll get to that shortly.

That’s the starting tower behind me

The green course wasn’t too hard, and while we traversed it we stopped and took photos of each other zipping or climbing or otherwise trying to get from one side of an obstacle to the other.

We completed it in about thirty minutes, and would have finished it a few minutes earlier had we immediately understood one of the obstacles near the end of that course.

We didn’t, so we spent some time shouting for help from the staff and finally figured it out just before they came.

When we exited the green course, we stopped at the car for water and snacks before we set off to tackle the blue line.

It was as we were climbing the steps of the tower towards the blue course starting point that I began asking myself why I was doing this.  What was I trying to prove and to whom?

This is not the type of thing that I normally find fun and am certainly never in a rush to do.

For example, I’m not the one to suggest going to an amusement park because I hate roller coasters.  I just don’t get thrills from doing that type of stuff.

So why was I even on this challenge course?

I didn’t have time to answer that question before we were hooking ourselves to the first zip line an plunging into the blue course.

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What the WHAT? Footholds and handholds where? No, thanks, I’ll just use the support wires.

They definitely achieved their goal of making the blue course more difficult than the green one.

There were a few nerve-wracking moments on that course.

Ironically, the one obstacle that we were most apprehensive about turned out to be one of the easiest to get across.

It was something that looked like a section of rock-climbing wall.  It gives the impression that you must use the tiny footholds and handholds on it.

However, my pioneering colleague in front of me discovered that moving her feet between each slat of the wall, basically walking on and holding on to the support wires, was far easier.

Don’t judge me for doing it the easy way, people; the aim wasn’t to be a stickler about how to get across the obstacle, the aim was to get across it!  And we did.

We completed the blue course in just over thirty minutes.  Again when we exited that course, we stopped at the car for refreshments to fortify ourselves for the next level.

As we climbed the steps of the starting tower to the beginning of the red course, I picked up my previous line of rumination, asking myself what on Earth I was doing, but this time I came to a conclusion.

It seems that I am no longer a person who makes decisions based on fear.

I’m also no longer a person who assumes that I can’t do a thing, even if I haven’t done it before.

I’m now a person who first decides if I want to do a thing, then if I decide that I do, I just do it.

Oh my gosh, I think I’m a Nike ad.  Anyway, moving on.

This might seem like a small thing but it’s actually quite a big deal for me.

I remember a few years ago, someone who I was close to would frequently berate me for not being “all in” to anything.  The person accused me of being too careful and not throwing myself into anything.

At the time, I remember feeling inadequate and confused about how to be “all in” because I thought I was giving my all to the life I was living.

I now find myself in a position of simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with that person.  On the one hand, they were right in that I wasn’t “all in.”  I thought I was but I really wasn’t.

The reason, though, wasn’t fear, as they thought.  It was really because there was nothing worth being “all in” with.

Seeing as how my life was all wrong – as if I was trying to wear a scratchy, ill-fitting, torn up old sweater like it was a beautiful ball gown – there was only so far I could go.

Now I know what “all in” really means and being that way is almost effortless for me because my life now really is that beautiful ball gown that fits like it was made specially for me.

So back to the red course.  By the time we got to the starting point up in the tower, I was getting a little apprehensive about what we were about to face.

Still, I hooked myself to the zip line and took off into the treetops as I had done on the green and blue courses.  I’ll tell you up front that the red course wasn’t pretty for us.

We hardly took any photos because we were mostly trying to figure out how on Earth to get from one side of each obstacle to the other.  We also didn’t look so cute anymore because we were grunting and shrieking (me, mostly) our way through the course.

What the WHAT?? How are we supposed to get from one horizontal swinging log to another??

On top of that, a group of teenagers were right behind us on the course and we practically felt them breathing down our necks to hurry up so they could keep moving.

The problem was that they couldn’t pass us since only three people were allowed on a platform (remember, we were going from obstacle to obstacle totally in the trees, which meant moving from one platform to another) and our group of three was sticking together; no man left behind and all that.

We could practically hear the teens thinking, “Why don’t these old ladies get out of our way?” but we ignored them and kept a steady pace.

About forty minutes into the course, we accidentally lost our pioneer .  The person who was ahead of me misunderstood the direction of the next obstacle and ended up going down the escape ladder, thinking it was the end of the red course.

Just as I was about to hook myself to the line to go down after her, our anchor colleague behind me made it to the platform and noticed that there was a zip line going in another direction across a field, which meant that the course wasn’t finished.

Unfortunately, once you go down an escape ladder at that park, you’re not allowed to go up the ladder again and you have to re-start the course if you want to finish it.

Our pioneer was exhausted from her efforts on the red course so far – we all were, that course was crazy! – and decided not to re-start.

So I hooked myself to the zip line and continued the course, thinking that it was the last leg.

Oh, how wrong I was.

If I had known what the next leg would be, I probably would have taken the escape route, too.

In fact, as I stood on the next platform confusedly looking at the swinging pieces of vertically suspended lumber with small pieces of wood jutting out of each for footholds, trying to work out how I was expected to get to the other side of the obstacle, I almost hooked myself to the escape ladder and went down.

But my anchor member zipped over behind me, landed on the platform, and convinced me that we could do it.

Eventually, I hooked myself to the safety line and leaped off the platform and onto the first log, shouting back at my colleague that I had no clue how to get to the next log, which was too far for me to reach.

She kept calling encouragement to me and eventually, I managed to snag it with my left leg while hugging the log I was already swinging on with both arms, then I pulled the second log towards me, situated my left foot, hugged it with my left arm, then let go of the first log while swinging my right arm and leg over to settle on the new log too.

I had about eight of these to traverse and by the time I was halfway through the obstacle, my arms were aching from hugging the logs so tightly from fear of falling.

In retrospect, there was no need to fear falling since my harness was hooked to the safety line but still, when you’re feet in the air hovering above the ground, your logic skills are laser focussed on safely completing the task.

It was at this point that the teenage boy who had zipped over behind us decided that he’d had enough; he hooked himself to the escape ladder and went down.

Meanwhile, my anchor colleague was asking me how to get across the obstacle.  This was what we had done throughout all the courses.

Those of us following behind would watch what the person ahead did and copy that, or try to do something a little easier.

I tried to explain what I was doing but I’m not sure I did a good job of it since I was desperately hugging a log at that moment, wondering yet again what on Earth I was doing and if I would make it.

After a couple of failed attempts to get onto the first log, my anchor colleague decided that her legs were too short to get through this obstacle and she also hooked herself to the escape ladder and went down.

Meanwhile, I still had two logs to get across before I could reach the safety of the next platform, which lead to the final zip line on the red course.  With a mighty effort and calling on Jesus the entire time,

I finally heaved myself onto the platform, vowing that I was definitely not taking on the black course that day.

As I hooked myself to the final line and zipped to the last platform to get back to the ground, I didn’t feel exhilarated.  I just felt happy to be done.

A few minutes later, when we were back at the office and out of our harnesses, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I had completed the red course, despite the crazy challenges that littered it.

I felt in no way inadequate for deciding not to do the black course because I knew that my mental and physical resources for this type of activity were just about depleted.

Also, while we were on the red course, we got a glimpse across the way at some of the obstacles on the black course and they were not pretty.  I knew for sure that I wasn’t up to it that day.

In any case, as we drove back to town, I felt a quiet happiness that I had gone on our little excursion and had met the challenge that I had put myself into.

In all, it took us about two hours to complete the three courses and we made it as a team, encouraging each other, advising each other, and supporting each other.

The experience also showed me some of the changes for the better that have taken place in me over these past three years.  For that alone, the experience was worth the angst of that last obstacle on the red course.

When I am afraid, O Lord Almighty, I put my trust in you.  I trust in God and am not afraid; I praise Him for what he has promised.  What can a mere human being do to me? Psalm 56:3-4 (GNT)

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Another School Year Ends – Lessons Learned & Why I Cried

Generally speaking, in life old things come to an end before new things begin.

In my own life over the most recent years, I’ve seen this at work several times.

My old, fake life had to come to an end before my new life – that I should have been living all along, I might add – could begin.

My time being tied to Jamaica had to come to an end before I could begin exploring the world.  And winter had to end so that the annual renewal of spring could begin.

Old apartments must be cleaned and closed up before new apartments can be moved into (well, when you live the type of nomadic life I do in this season of my life).

Old school years must come to an end before new ones can begin.  And old language classes must be wrapped up before new ones can start.

These are some of the endings and beginnings that have been cropping up for me.

The first was a change in my living situation.

I moved to a different apartment.  And it was an ironic move, at that.

A couple of foreign teachers ended their contracts early and left and I was asked to move from the flat where I had been living (since I arrived in Yakutsk almost ten months ago) to the flat that they were vacating.

The people who left were the Toxic Ones, which is why I say it was ironic.

I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t happy they were leaving but I also wasn’t sad to see them go.

I felt just as neutral about moving into their vacated flat.  I was told the reason why I was being asked to move and I had no problem acquiescing to the request.

After all, when accommodation is provided for me, it’s not my place to pick and choose where I live, as long as it’s clean and reasonably well maintained.

They left on Wednesday, May 9 – Victory Day, which could also be ironic, depending on how you look at it.

It was a holiday here so we all had the day off from school.

Since the next day, Thursday, was my day off, you would think I’d have waited until then to move.  I didn’t.

I had my most challenging class at 9 am on Friday and I didn’t want to spend Thursday moving, cleaning and settling into a new place; I needed to spend that day recovering from my moving activities so that I would be emotionally ready for my Friday morning class.

This is why they left early on Wednesday  morning and I moved late on Wednesday morning.  I actually only had to move across the street.

Two interns from school helped me.  After three trips and twenty minutes, we were done hauling my stuff.

The interns left to enjoy the rest of their holiday and I spent a couple of hours praying through every room, cleaning and unpacking.

To be fair, the place was already clean but I like to clean a place myself when I move in, no matter how clean it is.

I hadn’t seen the place before the key turned in the door to admit the interns and me.  It surprised me, actually.

It’s about twice the size of my previous flat and is meant for entertaining, which is why I plan to have the bridge club over next time we meet.  The new place is also more comfortable than my old place in several ways, like the fact that there’s a couch and wood floors on which I totally enjoy walking barefooted.

In fact, I’ve had to ensure that, while I enjoy living in it, I don’t get attached to the new place.  Actually, it’s revived dreams of the heart-home that I know is somewhere in my future.

In any case, that was the first ending and beginning that I had almost a month ago.  Some people ended their jobs to begin a new chapter of their lives and that caused me to end my time in my old flat and move into a new and better one.

The second ending for me was the end of the 2017/18 school year last Wednesday.

Over the course of the previous week, my kids did their final tests and last week was all about giving them their certificates of completion (or certificate of attendance for those who didn’t perform well throughout the school year), as well as their final report cards.

Between Monday and Wednesday, all of my kids’ classes wrapped up.  In those final classes, I had my kids make memory books of the school year, which was a great activity for them and for me.

It was great for them because it caused them to reflect on some of the things that they learned at our school over the previous several months; to use the language that we’ve been practicing; and it kept them busy colouring and writing.

It was great for me because I didn’t have to do anything while they were colouring and writing, except monitor and help them a little.

My one adult class wrapped on Thursday, which is my day off so the other teacher with whom I shared the class closed off with that group, though I did pop over for the last several minutes of class to congratulate them and bid them farewell.

I also presented little treats to all of my students.  I got ice cream for all the children; also, those who made excellent effort and got good marks throughout the school year got little presents, like notebooks and chocolates.

For the adult class, my partner teacher had a wonderful idea of giving them custom-made fridge magnets, so that’s what we presented them with.

Cool, right?  This is the gift we gave our adult students

Three of my students also presented me with gifts – I got two boxes of chocolates and this brilliant rendering of me done by one of my twelve year old students.

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There’s serious talent in this young girl

I was proud of almost all of my students.  I worked really hard this year, as hard as I ever worked in my corporate jobs, and it was gratifying to see that most of my students also worked hard and succeeded in my classes.

Of the more than seventy students that I ended the school year with, only about five didn’t do well enough for me to recommend them to move up to the next level of English language classes.

To me, that’s a pretty good success rate, especially for my first real teaching job working in a real language school.

With the end of the old school year came the beginning of summer camp, which I’ll work through for several weeks before I adventure off on a real break.

Summer camp in our school goes in two-week cycles, with each batch of students coming for only two weeks before a new batch begins.  There again I see endings and beginnings.

Actually, I expected to cry through one of my final kids’ classes last week, because I really particularly enjoy some of my very little ones, but I didn’t cry at all.

It was my last Russian class of the school year last Wednesday afternoon that unexpectedly had me in tears.

That was the last thing that ended for me over the past few weeks.  I felt kind of silly but I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.

At first I didn’t even understand why I was crying but upon a little reflection, I realised that it was because this woman was a constant in my life twice a week for over eight months.

When all the other foreign teachers abandoned her classes, I was the only one who stuck with her and, in return, she stuck with me.

She came from her home in a village outside of the city twice a week just for me, which is saying something in below -40⁰C winter temperatures!  She worked hard to ensure that she gave me useful language skills that help me in my everyday life.

And she clearly prepared for all of our lessons.

Even though I didn’t study as I should have, I always made sure that I did my homework, more out of respect for her hard work and effort than for my own benefit.  She was committed to me and I was committed to her.

Some of my material from these last 8 months of Russian classes

So I cried at the end of our last class when it finally hit me that I may not see her again.

I cried in gratitude for her patience in taking me from absolute beginner level in Russian to what my colleagues tell me is now elementary level.  I cried in appreciation for her patience and thoroughness on my behalf.

If I have done anywhere close to the same for my students, I consider my school year a successful one.

Endings and beginnings.  They can be bittersweet but they’re necessary and inevitable in life.  I thank God for these recent endings that have made way for new things to take their place.

Do not say, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?”  For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.  Ecclesiastes 7:10

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Let’s Watch The Ice Drift At Tabaginskiy Mis

A week after our hike to Kangalasskiy Mis, we set off on our second hike, which was to Tabaginskiy Mis.

This is another cape in the opposite direction overlooking a different part of the Lena River.  This time, I left my down jacket at home and instead wore my rain jacket, which is more durable for hiking excursions.

Tabaginskiy Mis was supposed to be a good vantage point from which to watch the ice drift.

What’s the ice drift, you ask?  Well, as I’ve previously said, every body of water around here freezes over in the winter, and the Lena River is no exception.

This river, which is superlative in itself, is the same one on which we drove when we visited the Lena Pillars three months ago.

When I say that we drove on it, I mean we drove on the actual frozen river, along with numerous other vehicles that traversed the ice road during winter.

Now, with the coming of spring, the river has been melting and the ice was drifting northwards, from its source in the Baikal Mountains all the way to the Laptev Sea and into the Arctic Ocean.

On our hike to Tabaginskiy Mis, we wanted to see this ice drift.

For days before, all the local news and local teachers were tracking the ice break.

People from villages were posting photos on Instagram showing flooding in their area as the ice broke and started drifting, and those of us who were going on the hike kept praying that the drift would pass our area exactly on the Sunday of our hike.

One of our local colleagues kept us updated in our hiking WhatsApp group chat.  “The drift is 200 km away…now it’s 120 km away at so-and-so village…at dark o’ clock last night, the drift was 50 km away from Yakutsk.”  And so on.

I was excited to see the ice drift with my own eyes, but nature is nature so I went with the expectation that we could miss it altogether.

So off I set on Sunday morning, two weeks ago, to the same meeting point that we had used the week before for our hike to Kangalasskiy Mis, to rendezvous with my three other colleagues who were also joining the hike that day, plus the rest of the hiking group.

To my delight, I saw Olga the guide again and she came to greet me when she saw me too but, unfortunately, she wasn’t our guide for the day.

In fact, she was leading another group back to Kangalass, while our group was lead by someone else.  This time, our group was quite large and we had to take two buses.

We numbered over forty people and that included at least ten men and teenage boys this time.  I suspect that we had that many males this time because everyone was eager to see the ice break.

We set off at 9 am for the forty-five minute drive to our starting point.  Five minutes into the hike, I felt like I should burst into song because everything was so idyllic.

I came this close to belting out, “The hills are aliiiiiiiiiive with the sound of muuuuuuuuuusic!”

In fact, five minutes after that, the urge became even stronger because we crested a ridge and walked right into a field of fresh, new snowdrops (the pretty flowers, not actual drops of snow) overlooking a beautiful part of the melted river, with a small herd of wild horses grazing on the edge of the field.

I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect scene.

Come on, you don’t feel like singing tunes from The Sound Of Music just seeing this view?

We took a zillion photos then our guide got us moving again.  For the next hour and a half or so, we continued going up, walking through hilltop forests still covered in slowly melting snow.

Walking along snow-laden paths through the forest

Every now and then, we would stop at an overhang and look at the gorgeous scene spread out as far as our eyes could see.

On a cliff above a melted section of the river

At around 11:30 am we stopped for a bathroom break (again, behind a convenient tree stump or tree) and our first lunch, which, as usual, was communal; we joined a group of about ten women and sampled some delicious pie one of them had made.

After first lunch, we set off through the forest again and some little while later, found ourselves at the cape that was our goal for the day.

The scenery was breathtaking, guys; simply gorgeous.

But it was a good thing that I had taken the attitude of no expectation for the ice drift, because nature was not cooperating with our hike that day.

We could see that the river to the right was still iced over but the section of the river that we were overlooking was almost completely ice-free.  There was definitely no ice drift happening that day.

Still, I got that usual joy infusion that I get when I’m in situations like that.  Besides, you can’t miss what you don’t know, right?

Ah, this breathtaking view

We continued along the trail, descending a steep slope then making a big push up one last hill that tried its best to steal my breath with its steepness, but I made it pretty well.

After that, we tramped through the forest some more, stopped for our second lunch, then started the last leg of our walk, picking our way down a steep slope to a road leading to the village of Tabaga.

From there, we walked a short distance to the edge of the village proper to meet our buses.

Again when I got home, I immediately stripped out of my clothes and threw them into the washer.  I did the same with my muddy boots afterwards.  I also had a warm shower, as I had done the week before, and again I had no soreness from my unaccustomed exertions of the day.

Three days later, one of my foreign colleagues and I hared off back to Tabaga with one of our local colleagues and her family, to see the ice drift which had finally arrived.  It was amazing!

In the one hour or so that we spent watching the river, we saw literally tonnes of ice drift past us.  It was blew my mind a little that this ice would end up in the Arctic Ocean and perhaps melt over the summer.

Panoramic view of the ice drift

As we were driving out of Tabaga, our colleague’s husband asked if we wanted to touch the ice and of course we said yes.

He drove right down the shore of the tributary we were driving past and we got out and took pictures of us standing on a piece of ice that was stuck up against the bank.

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No worries, that piece of ice was pretty firmly stuck on the bank

Minutes later, two stern policemen appeared and told us not to do that or we might end up in the Laptev Sea.

As we smiled and apologised and climbed back into the van, one of the policemen reportedly muttered, “crazy foreigners.”  Ahhhh hahahahahaha!

I’m sure it must have seemed crazy but honestly, it was perfectly safe.  That piece of ice didn’t move even one centimeter when we stood on it.  I kicked it a few times before I stood on it.

So I did get to see the ice drift after all, just not when I thought I would see it.

By the next day, the village of Tabaga was flooded because there was a jam in the ice somewhere upriver.  It would remain flooded for several days until engineers finally succeeded in blasting the jam free (yes, with explosives, and after multiple attempts).

All in all, I’d say that I had a great first experience of spring thaw as it was meant to be.

Ask the Lord for rain in the spring of the year. It is the Lord who sends rain clouds and showers, making the fields green for everyone.  Zechariah 10:1 (GNT)

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