Thursday, June 28, 2007

Day 333: Techno-Polka

Last week – June 21, to be exact – was the summer equinox, longest day of the year. While Cherskii is certainly an Arctic outpost, it’s only about 69ºN latitude. The sun is in the sky 24 hours a day during the summer, but the sun is close to the horizon at midnight, rather than high in the sky like it is in Longyearbyen. I live slightly below the crest of a small hill, so a midnight the sun does appear to “set” – although the sun is clearly shining on the land directly across the river, only a few hundred meters away.

Anyway, the equinox! After a bunch of days of not much - reading, writing, etc, I noticed a whole bunch of people walking around near our group of cabins. Turns out there was a celebration going on for the equinox festival on the hill down the road. A friend of Sergei’s son recently came to visit, so he came by and we went to see what the festival was all about. I believe his name is something like Martek, but my spelling and hearing are not to be trusted.

So often at these sort of “traditional” festivals, I feel completely turned off because they feel like they’re created for the benefit of tourists, or a sort of meaningless show, and sometimes its hard to figure out the difference between true traditions and what attracts spectators. Not so here – Cherskii doesn’t exactly have a thriving tourist industry. As the only outsider in the crowd, I got a spectacular opportunity to witness some culture.

In a clearing at the top of the hill, there are a series of totem poles carved with horses and birds, and inlaid with metal numbers for the dates. Although very reminiscent of Native American totem poles, I’ve been told that these (and the practice in general) are very modern here, put up within the last few decades. Regardless, they are the site of any major celebration in town and provide an awesome view of two joining branches of the Kolyma.

A huge rainbow-colored banner was hung up, in front of which a stage hosted songs and dances preformed all throughout the day. My escort provided a limited explanation of what was going on. Not necessarily specific to the equinox, the songs varied from Yakutian folk ballads to patriotic Russian marches. Not having a very detailed clue to what was exactly happening, I’ll let some photos speak for the experience.

The performers ranged from a group of older women singing heartily about Cossacks, to two ultra-skinny adolescent girls squeaking out Russian pop, to leather-clad dancers performing to a hunter’s animal calls, to tiny toddlers running around in a bare-semblance of organized performance.

BY FAR, however, my favorite event of the stage occurred as follows. A young boy, perhaps 11, took to the stage in normal street clothes with a microphone. Out of the loud speakers suddenly blared Eminem’s “Slim Shady”, sped up and overlaid with a techno-polka dance beat. Techno-polka is the only way to describe it. Then, out of the blue, this kid starts rapping a traditional Russian ballad about farming, and busts out jigging. The crowd LOVED it and everyone started dancing.

My hero:

I have no idea what that had to do with the equinox.

Off stage, more amazing things awaited. Like most festivals anywhere, there were carts set up with various things to eat and drink. I basically don’t carry a wallet with me anymore, so I didn’t get to partake. But I did get to witness a bigger selection of the local population than I’ve been able to interact with before. It’s not so often that the townspeople collect en masse.

It was very hot that day, and the styles ranged from skimpy-to-a-socially-questionable-scale on the women, to grandmothers covered in traditional robes, to the universal male dress code of shirtless. From my extraordinarily vague knowledge of the fashion world, I get the impression that a number of super models are Russian. I have to say, a surprising number (statistically) of the girls in the crowd were very good looking, and extremely skinny (mostly in a body-shape way, not in a malnutrition way). Although I wonder about the fact that there wasn’t a stitch to spare on many of them, and while on the other hand American fashion trends aren’t something I necessarily support, a crowd where most females aged 10-50 are wearing skin-tight clothes is both visually unappealing, and makes you think about the social factors at play.

Interesting. In comparison, I may as well have been wearing a potato sack.

But to continue to other remarkable events. After Martek and I got tired of the singing and dancing stage, we went over to a crowd of men where a crude ring had been set up with stakes and twine. Inside was a heavy table with big pads on the top. As we watched, two burly men came over, vigorously grasped each other’s hands, and began a muscle-glistening arm wrestling match. Although I couldn’t make heads or tails of the pecking order, two guys in the random matches kept beating everyone who came up to try.

After the guys got tried of being beaten by these two, a sort of lull came over the crowd, and I waited for whatever was going to happen next. What happened next was awesome – the WOMAN’S arm wrestling matches started. Although it took a bit of coaxing from the crowd, two fairly rugged-looking women, the middle-aged house wife sort, walked forward and went at it. Only a few women stepped forward to compete (no, I certainly did not). My favorite match was between a stout woman and a pretty, more-delicate-looking woman in light flowery dress. Turns out that little flowery number contained ripped biceps.

So the arm wrestling finished soon after, and the ring was cleared – for the proper wrestling matches. When I say “proper”, I have no idea what I’m talking about – it wasn’t boxing, but whether it followed any formal definition of the wrestling world I have no idea. Two men, stripped to the waist, would jump in the ring with a referee grabbed out of the crowd of waiting competitors. Never having watched any sort of fighting match before, I didn’t think I’d be too interested – but it was fascinating. A really, really fun sport to watch - crowded around a shabby patch of dirt, yelling at the fighters with everyone.

The wrestlers clearly weren’t trying to hurt each other – just flip their opponent into the dirt, in a method that seemed to primarily involve grabbing the other’s leg and turning him upside-down. The worst injuries were from people skidding out of the ring, bowling over kids and elders, earning some minor road-rash. In general I have a low opinion of fighting sports, but this was just fun – no one got angry, there was no actual “fighting”, and none of the losers ever seemed upset beyond minor disappointment, always finishing the match with a handshake and a hug.


One young fellow, perhaps 19, was obviously trying to step out and prove himself – in a polite way, but he was clearly eager for the crowd. With a few exchanged winks amongst the gathered contestants, he was pushed into the ring with a guy built like a barrel. Although muscular, this skinny young guy didn’t stand a chance. After putting each other into a head lock, barrel-man picked him up, flung him over his shoulders, and ran around the ring with him over his head. Hilarious.

Well, that was that. The next notable event of recent times was the arrival of 5 scientists last Friday – 2 Japanese, 2 Russian, and 1 American from Georgia, all botanists come to work on a plant survey of Asia. We hit it off pretty well at first, and I was excited to have some people to talk to and maybe start doing some field work with them.

Unfortunately, when I went out with them the next day, it became clear that they really didn’t need me – they didn’t even need the Russian post-doc they had with them. I ended up rambling around the mountain taking photos for nearly the entirety of the 8 hours we were out there.

We drove quite a ways out from Cherskii to another low-lying mountain across the river plains to find somewhere relatively free of trash. The Jeep (I think it’s a Jeep, but built like an Explorer) we use around the station has an interesting tendency to turn off if you go in reverse, or if you don’t rev the gas when you try to start moving. We got half-way up the hill when the road got too rough, and we decided to turn the car around, park, and walk the rest of the way. This was on a dirt road with ruts half a meter deep in the middle of the taiga. The car said no. Pavel, the leading Russian, managed to rev the car forward enough to turn it into the forest, then let the engine shut down and just allowed the car to free-roll down the hill back onto the road. No problem.

Another interesting note – around here people drive on the British side of the car, but the American side of the road.

Anyway, we set off. Their work mainly consists of selecting patches of vegetation, approximately 3x3m, and identifying every single plant in the section. Ideally, they select plots that represent general areas (taiga, forest taiga, grassland taiga, slopes, river banks, tundra, etc) then correlate the identifications with satellite images. The extrapolations involved seem rather broad, but that’s science I guess. Without an extremely detailed knowledge of Siberian plant species’ Latin names, I couldn’t help much except for carrying lunch.

Flower related to the California Indian Paintbrush:

Now, I know I’m a nerd, a big science nerd, and I’ve gotten all excited about jobs that involve being covered in bird poop and filtering water and staring at amphipods all day. But nothing beats watching three grown men, in a flurry of excitement, crouch around a single little yellow flower and babble in Latin.

Looking back at the station:

Around the mountain, there was a nice breeze, so it wasn’t too hot and the bugs stayed off of us. Towards the top, cleverly camouflaged with green paint, was an enormous decaying Russian radio sensor from the 1960’s. I felt like James Bond. The Russian post-doc – Sasha - rolled his eyes and, making quotations with his hands, called it a “Russian weather station”.

On top of the hill:

Down the other side of the hill and across towards a gold quarry, it got absolutely miserable. Hot and endless bugs, and with nothing to do I tried to cover as much exposed skin as possible and wait to go home. Saw some interesting birds, went slightly crazy and used cranberry juice to draw animals on my pant legs. This part of the land was turning from the mountain rumble we were previously in into taiga forest, possibly one of the more difficult places to hike I’ve been in. The innocent-looking vegetation easily goes thigh-high (not including the trees), and the ground is an ankle-wrecking maze of tussocks and ditches, completely impossible to see from the top. The only option is to plow through hoping not to hit too deep of a pothole. My bad leg was not happy when we got home.

Some birds:

The hike:

A bug that would like us dead:

The Japanese woman scientist seems to have made it her personal mission to kill every bug that comes near her. That endless task is somewhat maddening to witness.




Slap slap slap slap.

(times a bazillion)

Well! Two vacationing Swiss birdwatchers arrived on Tuesday as well. More about them, and adventures since, next time.

Here's the whole contingent gathered for dinner in my living room/dining room, where we eat three meals a day together. Left to right: 2 Japanese scientists, 1 Russian post-doc, 1 American professor, 1 Russian scientist, and 2 Swiss bird watchers.

Other things I keep forgetting to mention…the Frozen Five got back to Longyearbyen a week or two ago, 100% successfully. Belated congrats to them!

I have absolutely zero contact with current events here. The internet really isn’t good enough for me to spend time on news sites. If something important happens, someone please let me know.

This is why I never sleep without a blanket anymore:

I will be in California in exactly one month.


sam said...

Is there anything in particular you're looking forward to doing/seeing/etc when you get back to Cali? Plans for next year?

Touchstone said...

Geeky correction: June and December 21 are solstices. The equinoxes are when the sun is at the equator, March and September 21.

Laurel said...

Geeky, indeed! But thanks :) we like that around here.

Laurel said...

As for Sam's question: Mexican food and Jamba juice, over which I will most likely shed tears of joy.

As for next year, I'll address that impending fiasco in a blog post one of these days.