Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Day in the Life…

Many of the Russians I have gotten to know more closely in Vladivostok have asked me, So, Cheryl, how exactly do you usually spend your days here? For an example, here’s how today went.

On Thursday mornings I have two 80-minute lectures at the Environment Institute at Far Eastern State University (DVGU), so I get up rather early (about 7:00), and head over to the university at 7:45. I walk there. Right now the snow is melting during the day in the city, but things freeze at night, and early in the morning the streets and sidewalks are still rather iced over. So I shuffle along as best I can, especially on the hills. Today I took a nice fall – I find this happens once every 2 weeks or so. I’m not alone, and I find that people falling on the ice fails to attract much extra attention around here.

So my classes. In fact they are closer to 60 minutes in length, because they always start late and often end early. The first class (Nature Protection and Regional Environmental Issues) starts at 8:00 am, and I’ve detected a pattern for how it goes: the professor reads a very good lecture (today’s topic was a continuation on criteria for and approaches to evaluating ecosystem health), but he talks a little too fast for us to get everything down. The Russian students are not too appreciative of the entire academic experience, as far as I’ve gathered. One girl in the class usually takes notes, while everyone else talks and sends SMS messages on their cell phones. General practice at DVGU tells me they’ll probably all copy down the one girl’s notes some other time.

I take my second class, Political Geography, with a different and much more well-behaved group of students. They are more like the Russian students I took classes with in Irkutsk. Almost all of them actually take notes and pay attention during lecture. This group also has taken a little more interest in me, and while I have yet to meet anyone in the Nature Protection class, I feeling comfortable chatting with the Political Geography students. Today one of them, Ira, decided we should get together sometime and took down my phone number. Ira is going to the U.S. for a couple of months this summer on a pretty well-advertised (and popular) exchange program that sends Russian students to California, New Jersey, New York, Florida (maybe other states, too) to work a waitress- or tourist-type job, just for the experience, apparently. Ira is assigned to New Jersey. I tried not to show my disappointment for her.

No time for swimming today, as the pool is crowded at all day times except from 11:00 to 3:00, and I have to go out to the Institute of Marine Biology this afternoon. After my Political Geography class I go to the bank to pay my telephone bill. Paying your bills in Russia is not quite as simple as paying in the States. You don’t get to mail in a check or pay online. You get your bill in the mail and go to the nearest cashier’s office. The office closest to me is at one of the main SberBanks in town, about a 15-minute walk from my apartment. I imagine I’m pretty lucky to have this close proximity.

Besides the waiting in line, paying the bill is simple. Then it’s a muddy walk off to the nearest train station to catch 12:05 electric train (“electrichka”) to the Institute of Marine Biology (IMB). Today I have 2 main purposes there: to meet up with Liliya, IMB’s education specialist, who works from home most days, and to consult with Andrei Maliutin, the director of the Far Eastern Marine Zapovednik (Nature Reserve), assuming he hasn’t left for Moscow – a plan left precariously hanging in the air.

In the office where Liliya works there are guests, and I get to meet Denis, one of the guards from Kedrovaya Pad Zapovednik, a much too tiny reserve created specifically for the protection of the Amur leopard, the world’s most endangered large cat; Diana Solovyova, a scientist from Wrangel Island Zapovednik (Nature Reserve), which has some of Russia’s best ecological monitoring programs (particularly for birds); and a scientist from Denmark who is joining Diana’s team from Wrangel Island for a month in the field as his “vacation.” Diana and the scientists from Wrangel Island are already here in the Russian Far East for the second year in a row. Their purpose? They spend two full months in the field studying merganser (that’s a duck) populations to the north of Vladivostok, in the Lazovsky Region near Lazovsky Zapovednik. Part of their study involves evaluating the success of placing artificial nests in trees on the river for the mergansers, to see if they will use them successfully when there may not be enough natural nesting sites. Diana invited me to come out and spend some time in the field with them in April or May, and I’m all for it. Mersangers are not a bird you get to see too frequently, and the Wrangel Island team has some cool science going.

Maliutin fortunately (for me) had not left town, so I got a chance to have a chat with him today, too. Despite the fact that he cancelled his working trip to Moscow because he was too busy in Vladivostok, he smiled when he saw me, invited me right on in, and found time to chat with me for nearly an hour without making me feel like I was bothering him. He’s quite a good-natured guy, and always ready to see if he can help in some little way – by finding a book in his library, chatting with another scientist, etc. Today we discussed the two quite different topics: 1. problems associated with lack of clear legislation defining the rules for marine ecosystems, and 2. Far Eastern Marine Reserve’s development of a monitoring system based on monitoring a defined set of biological indicators. That is, rather than conduct a simple inventory of the abundance of all the species in the reserve, the sizes of its individuals, and so on – a common practice in Russia, which unfortunately fails to take into account limited resources and the need for forecasting – starting in 2003 Far Eastern Marine Reserve began monitoring a key set of species that occupy different trophic levels (levels in the food chain). These species are indicators – changes in their composition, numbers, etc. should be reflect changes in the ecosystem as a whole.

Maliutin and I also discussed my goal of conducting a comparative analysis of protected area management experience in the Russian Far East, and how to best approach this task. Maliutin recommended taking the same approach as with the monitoring system we had just discussed: define a set of key indicators that should be comparable across all the protected areas in the Far East, and develop a corresponding evaluation system. Not a bad idea! It is very generous of Maliutin to advise me on this question, quite on the spur of the moment – he’s certainly not required to. In this sense people like him are crucial for me for the Fulbright. Although I have 2 official advisors here (the director of DVGU’s Environment Institute and the director of the Institute of Marine Biology), I very rarely interact with them, and I certainly do not limit myself to consulting only with them. I use everyone I can here as an advisor, and I am lucky to have met specialists like Andrei Maliutin, Anatoly Kachur, Liliya Kondrashova and others who are ready to give me valuable tips, academic advice and encouragement.

By 5:00 it was time to head back to downtown Vladivostok on the electrichka. The electric train is a unique Russian experience. Every time there’s something different to observe. There are always poor vendors walking through the cars selling ice cream, t-shirts, socks, newspapers and more. Usually there will be some young people in your car listening to music on their headphones or cell phones at a volume loud enough for the whole car to hear. Sometimes a few scraggly guys will get on at one stop, dragging a guitar or two with them, serenade your car with music you may or may not want to listen to, or that may or may not actually qualify as music, for a few minutes, ask for money and get off. Today I headed home with Natasha, IMB’s museum director, and Gennady, her husband and a scientist in the Laboratory of Shelf Communities. They’re both super. And today in our car on the electrichka we got a new experience (for me, that is): a group of students got on, and two of the girls sang Russian folk songs, off-key, as loud as they could (drowning out our conversation completely, for example), dancing eventually included, for the last ten minutes of our ride. Amusing. Ten minutes of such amusement is enough, though.

As we walked from the train station to the main square downtown Natasha told me about interesting happenings she and Gennady had be privileged enough to observe on public transportation – a bus ride from Seattle to San Francisco – while in the States a few years back.

So I walked the 30 minutes back to my apartment – being careful not to get run over, of course – and got home just in time to make dinner, watch a silly sitcom while it cooked, eat and write you this blog. A good day in Vladivostok!

Pictures: 1. Vladivostok train station, 2. main square in Vladivostok -- monument to the fighters for Soviet power


Roman said...

Ширли, а сны в России тоже другие снятся? Расскажи хоть один, плиз.

Angela M. Owen said...

I can't believe your goal is: "conducting a comparative analysis of protected area management experience in the Russian Far East". When I was your age, my goal was to have a good time and date cute boys. Hey - I have a blog now: Check it out!