According to the map on the screen in front of me on the airplane, we are over land somewhere north of Boston, which means we have traversed the Atlantic Ocean on our journey back to Dallas/Fort Worth. And as with our trip to St Petersburg, November 17th and 18th have blended into a single, long day. A day filled with glory, laughter, and tears.
We awoke yesterday (the 17th) and visited Orphanage #2. Buckner has been providing services and support to this orphanage for 12 years, and the facility shows the benefits. There are security cameras, a lovely playground, school supplies, toys, updated equipment – and the discipline in the orphanage is evident. Our follow-up staff is well-known here, and this was the first time my group experienced our interpreter Lena truly in “her element” with our children. She directed us on how best to conduct our Bible study and crafts so the children would remain focused and attentive. With children ranging in age from 3-7, it was essential. As always, the kids loved having their pictures taken as well as wanting to be a shutterbug themselves. It’s been fun to look back at the now more than 1,000 photos we have taken and see the ones taken by the children – some are great and some are, well, works of special “art.”
At lunch, we honored our in-country Buckner staff who have been so patient and kind with us as we stumble through the Russian language, culture, and our own emotions in dealing with the many children. Ismael, Vladmir, Olga, Masha, and Lena have each received their degrees in education or counseling, and most have received their masters in either theology or education. They travel to each orphanage eacn week to providing teaching and care to the children, and have been able to break through the hurt and pain of so many abandoned children. Their work is hard. And they need our prayer, our encouragement, and our support. And Natasha, the Director working for Buckner, has a heart of gold and such a gift of administration. She works daily with the government, battles with customs on shipments of shoes, socks and humanitarian air, assesses operational needs at each of the orphanages and hospitals, and serves as the daily contact with the Buckner offices in the United States.
I know I’ve written about the beauty we’ve seen in this city in the cathedrals, museums, and historical landmarks. But I don’t think anything prepared us for our afternoon visit to the Cathedral of the Saviour of Spilt Blood. Built on the site of the murder of Alexander, this Russian Orthodox temple is cavernous and ornate, and the walls are completely decorated with images designed of small mosaic tiles. The life of Christ, religious icons, and images of heaven and earth are depicted. The lens of a camera is rendered inadequate in capturing the magnitude and beauty. The cathedral was started in the 17th century and finished in the 1900s. During World War II, the cathedral was used as a storage facility for tens of thousands of dead bodies. They say the bodies covered every square inch of the floor and were stacked as high as the windows. And during the rule of the Soviets, the cathedral was also used to store potatoes. A bomb fell through one of the cupolas into the center or the cathedral, but did not detonate. It lay there for four years before carefully being removed. Legend has it that the bomb detonated on the truck two miles away.
We ended our day with a bit of last-minute gift shopping for friends and family, and then wrapped our adventure with a Russian Folk Show at a local theatre. I have to admit I wasn’t extremely excited about attending – knowing we still had packing and traveling ahead of us, part of me wanted to have a bit of quiet time. But the experience was delightful. Those who believe they have a corner on creativity with hip-hop and breakdancing are greatly mistaken. Seems this country has been leading the dance revolution for centuries!
Late night at the hotel was spent reflecting on the experience with our newfound friends. Then we entered our bus for the last time at 2am for the quiet trip to the airport. The streets of Russia were not as crowded but still alive. Clubs and coffee houses were crowded (as was the bar at our hotel), and several people were riding horses down the sidewalks. The drawbridges were up so ships could pass. And the lights on the rows of palaces glowed in the moist night air.
Which brings me back to this plane as we journey southeast over Canada. We’ve backtracked 8 timezones so far as the 17th blurs with the 18th, and have another 3 hours to go before we reach our destination. I struggle with sleep despite the Ambien because my head and heart are so full. I have images in my mind that are embossed for life. I have found new brothers and sisters who I will lift up and love. I have cherished moments that make me smile. And I could certainly use a good, old-fashion cry right now.
It’s now 8pm on Sunday, November 18th. My watch is still set to Russian time, and it looks like I’ve been up for almost 48 hours. I’m resting quietly, with my dog by my side and my husband, Brad, in the shower (just like the morning of November 8th). I’ve savored a turkey burger and sweet potato fries, and have shed a good number of tears. It actually feels awkward to be home – maybe two more days in Russia would have sated the hunger. Then again, it likely would have just fueled the fire that is growing within me. Brad and I have both determined we want to return to Russia. I would love to find out that Reb, Marie, Rick, Rachel, Amy, Janet, Dave, Jean, Elaine, Janet, Barbara, Joy, Helen, Marina, Deborah, Alex, and Jessica would be there with us, loving on the kids and supporting those who work so hard to provide love, care, and eternal values each day.
I’ll close with a few thoughts, adages, and special memories of the trip.
“Please take all the time you want – you have 5 minutes.” – our theme statement, coined by Natasha
“Relax and enjoy the beautiful works of Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh – we leave in 10 minutes.” – a secondary theme statement, coined by Masha
The movie Hairspray is easy to memorize when you’ve watched it six times.
Creativity reigns during long bus rides – including interpretation of Russian street signs. One particular one, showing a person walking on a crosswalk with another sign featuring a pair of sunglasses, was defined as “only cool and really famous people may cross this street.”
The word “to go” doesn’t really have relevance in Russia. This caused our caffeine-addicted crew anguish. Then again, the sheer strength of Russian coffee kept this crew in a perpetual state of wide-eyed glory. No cup is needed in this country – the coffee here can stand on its own.
Hot chocolate in Russia is just that. Hot chocolate. Envision heated Hershey’s syrup, in a cup, ready for your enjoyment.
The best bread in Russia can be found in Volkhov at Nadeszhda Orphanage. Rich yeast rolls sprinkled with sugar are a treat indeed!
If you don’t like meat, potatoes, cabbage, beets, mayonnaise and cheese (together), sour cream, dill, and dark sourdough rye bread, Russia may not be your best bet as a tourist destination.
If orange M&Ms; come to the United States, run. Quickly. Trust us.
All roads lead to the Hermitage. And things owned by Peter the Great.
Smiles and hugs translate easily into every language. And laughter is universal.
Here’s to the journey. Here’s to the kids.