Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Destination: Vladivostok

(written Monday, February 12, 2007)

Despite one interesting neighbor on my flight (maybe always a given when flying domestic in Russia), the Petropavlovsk-Vladivostok trip was a nice smooth ride on an old Soviet plane, and I was very jealous of the girl sitting at the window as we flew over the Sea of Okhotsk (which still looked iced over despite the warm winter temperatures this year), Sakhalin Island and the mountainous east coast of Russia on a very clear day.

When we got off the plane in Vlad they stopped all the passengers who appeared to be foreigners, but I passed through, although I have never considered myself to be too Russian-looking. Or, this may be because, as I have heard, in Vlad they assume you’re Russian if you’re not Asian, because the Korean and Chinese population here is pretty high. This doesn’t stop me from feeling flattered (who knows why, actually – everyone wants to fit in, I guess) when people take me for a Russian, which has already happened a few times here, even after I’ve started talking.

As most of you know, I picked Vladivostok for a 10-month sojourn even though I have never been here before. The name of the city means “Lord of the East,” and this port town is known for being dangerous at night, home to unbelievable traffic jams, and plagued by poor air quality (so far, true, I’d say) and the occasional toxic metal contamination. But Vlad is also capital of a region that is one of the most naturally beautiful on Earth, and in terms of activities related to environmental issues – science, monitoring, protected areas, education, institutes, etc – Vlad is an active place, and I hope I succeed in taking advantage.

When I arrived to Vlad I was meant by a friend of Wild Salmon Center and Wellesley College’s travel agent, Debbie Chapman. Her name is Marina Bozhko, and she is wonderful. Marina had already found me an apartment before I had arrived here. I really like it. It is a one-room, Soviet-style apartment, very neat and on the 9th floor of a building very close to downtown, across the street from Vladivostok’s biggest supermarket (a convenient – although not cheap – option – although actually, Vlad is really not a cheap city) and within walking distance of my university courses and the Golden Horn Bay and Amur Bay on the Pacific coast. From a geographic standpoint Vlad is well-situated and very scenic. The city is laid out on a bunch of hills on the bay, and as you walk around town you get great views of the water (and ice right now) below and the hills on the other side. Of course, Russians will tell you that the way that the buildings are built up and around and on top of the hills is not exactly the best example of city planning, but I am really no great judge of this. So far it has also been pretty clear every day in Vlad (clear blue skies today), and warm (around freezing – somewhat abnormal temperatures like in much of the world this winter).

In Russia a one-room apartment is perhaps a bit more than what you may imagine in the states. I have a corridor when I walk in, and to my left is a walk-in closet for clothes, shoes, etc., and immediately ahead is a very large living room, which has my bed, a table and two armchairs, a wardrobe, 5 shelves full of books (a real home library), a cabinet of fancy Russian dishware and glasses, and a fold-out dinner table that for now is serving as my desk. (All of this without being crowded.) I also have a little balcony off the living room, where I can dry my clothes and which also has a lounge chair – a potential good reading spot in warmer weather. I have a very big kitchen – so, another room – probably twice as large as a usual Russian kitchen, which also has a big couch in it (I decided to put the TV here, too). So, despite a couple of “nuances,” as Marina calls them – e.g., the bathroom is big but not the most modern ever, the washing machine must be about 100 years old and has all directions in Japanese, and I have to unplug the refrigerator to dry my hair – the apartment is great. And it is pretty spacious, so I could easily have guests (so you should come visit).

On my first night in Vladivostok Marina took me to an event that may never be repeated for me again. This was the “Regional Far East Hospitality Awards” (no, Kamchatka didn’t win anything), which Marina was covering for her job and which I can only compare to the Oscars, but for Russian restaurant and hotel owners. Although there was no red carpet, it was a gathering of a number of beautiful people, many in evening wear (not me), with a stage and an emcee (in a white suit, white tie and black shirt), complete with red, blue and yellow strobe lights and popular music switched on with the announcement of each winner. Needless to say I felt a little weird, but hey, it was a new experience!

Over the last two days I have devoted much time to sterilizing all the dishes in the apartment and rearranging furniture, but I did get out some, too. On Sunday I had a little walking tour of Vlad with Marina and Leslie, another Fulbrighter here. (Leslie is an English teaching assistant – a different award than mine.) Today I went to Far Eastern State University (DVGU) to complete various administrative affairs (visa registration, filling out forms, etc.) and to choose my courses. This went well. They were waiting for me at the International Department at DVGU, everyone was very nice, including the student who helped me, Masha. I am going to choose about 3 courses to take at DVGU’s Environment Institute (Институт окружающей среды), and I also want to take a course in the humanities (maybe Russian literature), for variety and also to keep up my personal interest in that sphere. We went over to the Environment Institute (IOS) today, and we happened to bump into the dean, Yurii Zonov, while checking out the course schedule in the hall. Although I had never gotten a reply to my emails to IOS, it seems that Zonov read them and knew I was coming – he knew exactly who I was and even had some course recommendations (one of which is “Nature Protection and Environmental Issues,” taught by the deputy director of the Pacific Institute of Geography – cool!). Zonov also wants to introduce me to the director of the Pacific Institute of Geography later this week (an Academician – a high rank in Russia), which I don’t object to. So tomorrow Zonov and I are going to have a meeting, and hopefully course details will be worked out soon. The next stop is to figure out details with the Institute of Marine Biology, as soon as its director gets back to town, and then I hope to do some scoping of environmental organizations around town and potentially choose one to work with here. Hopefully this will keep me busy and happy, and who knows, maybe I will even have time to find a non-environment activity to do, too, which might be good to keep me from being too one-sidedly green.
Короче, всё впереди!

1. view from my apartment window in Vlad, 2. my apartment kitchen, 3. my apartment living room (love the leopard print), 4. newly-restored church in Vlad, 5. Tsarevich Nikolai II’s arch near the waterfront on the bay(built 1880, recently rebuilt)

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