The Wheels on the Bus

Scanning my closet I realized I was out of suits, but I had to give my conference presentation again today. What to do? I cobbled together a dress from one outfit with a jacket from another. Thank god for the color black. I stuffed other clothes in my bag to change into later—we would be headed to Arkhyz, a small mountain resort town, for the remainder of the conference.

The second day of the conference was in a much smaller room and that was a good thing. People were much less timid about interacting with speakers—asking questions, offering perspectives, and theorizing about new avenues for research. Once again I read through my presentation in Russian. I haven’t felt comfortable enough to wing it so far, but that is definitely on my “to-do” list for the next conference. People pay attention more when you speak naturally. I’ve noticed this myself when I listen to podcasts; when people are reading from a script a tend to tune out. Nevertheless, several people piped up with questions and clarifications and one person said aloud, in front of everyone afterwards, “Our Federal Migration Service needs to hear this! Sergei, get her to write an article!” So afterwards Sergei and I hatched a plan for me to expand my presentation into a full-blown article.

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For me, the highlight was Lyala’s presentation. She detailed some of the interviews she has been doing with Tajik women in Ufa and even played a video clip of one interview. My god, this woman’s story could have been told in Spanish by a Mexican woman because the story was exactly the same as many of my clients’. She came to Russia many, many years ago. She has raised children here and has worked hard in the janitorial industry. Nevertheless, she cannot seem to get legal status. She has been told that there are various ways for her to “come out of the shadows” and become documented, but every effort she has made has failed, costing her thousands of rubles and hours of effort. She doesn’t know where to go to get correct information and, even though she is fluent in Russian, she needs assistance filling out the official forms and understanding which fees to pay.

Everyone was interested in Lyala's presentation.
Everyone was interested in Lyala’s presentation.

One disadvantage of the small room was that the official photographer had difficulty maneuvering among us. Just as with Sharif, this young man gave me the feeling of constantly being under the lens of the paparazzi. I can’t imagine what all he found to photograph in a room full of people sitting and listening, but he snapped away during the entire session.

A Vietnamese colleague gave a talk on Russian-Vietnamese migration.  In discussing the history of population flows, he mentioned “our victory in the American War.”  My brain did a double-take until I understood what he was talking about.  We Americans never come right out and say that we lost that war, do we?

After Lyala’s talk, she and I slipped out to go change clothes. We had a four-hour ride ahead of us and neither of us wanted to be stuck in our suits. This is where I learned why you bend of backwards to be especially nice to the coat-check lady: if you are nice, she will let you into the coat room to change clothes. Clumsy as I am, I kept knocking people’s coats off their hooks while I wiggled out of my dress, but, we managed to put everything back in good working order quickly. The master of preparedness, Lyala gave me a quickie shoe-shine and lint extraction (although I hardly needed one in advance of a long bus ride…).

We had our last lunch in the faculty dining hall and then piled into two buses. Apparently, we would not all be staying at the same place. I followed my group and settled in next to the Canadian/Fin and started to read about Arkhyz.

Arkhyz is southwest of Stavropol and high in the Caucasus mountains. It is famous for its bottled water, which I regularly drink in Moscow. A fancy ski resort is currently under construction there, but that is not where we are headed. It is in the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, which borders Abkhazia, a disputed region that is nominally part of Georgia. It is particularly exciting for one of our group to be headed to Arkhyz. Biriz, our Turkish colleague, is married to a man whose family originated in the Karachay region.

We set off and immediately everyone busts out with the snacks. We’ve just eaten, but it’s a road trip! I look around and bottles are also making their way out of cubbyholes and plastic cups are distributed. Our generous Stavropol colleagues toast our health and our trip and our conference. I have a few toasts but then I have to beg off…I don’t want to get wasted on the bus! But they tease me and tell me my cheeks, while pink, are not nearly pink enough! So I have a few more toasts as we settle in for our ride.

Isn't it always the boys in the back of the bus that start the shenanigans?
Isn’t it always the boys in the back of the bus that start the shenanigans?

The scenery is gorgeous and utterly un-photographable from the bus. In the distance we see Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe. It’s so high that I thought its snowy peak was a cloud. The terrain is pretty flat for the majority of our drive, only getting steep when we get to the base of the mountains.

And then we broke down. I don’t know what was wrong with our bus, but the driver pulled off the road and shimmied under the vehicle with some tools. Since only his legs were visible, it looked like he’d been run over. We all took the opportunity to have some more toasts. Then a cow walked by. Smokers smoked and everyone fiddled with their phones, searching for service. The driver fixed whatever was wrong and we piled back in.

After about an hour of steep climbs, we could tell we were getting close to our destination. Lyala was texting me, asking where we were, that everyone was hungry for dinner. Our bus kept climbing and climbing as we saw signs for Lower Arkhyz and Upper Arkhyz and an astronomical observatory. Someone somehow realized that we were not where we were supposed to be and told the driver. But while the driver stopped and looked at a map our bus started to roll backwards downhill…..no one liked this. At all. Finally the driver somehow managed to turn the bus around and we headed back down the mountain. Lyala kept asking, “Where are you?? We’ve been here for an hour!!”

We stopped at the sign for the observatory and the driver attempted to make another turn. But each time he did, the bus rolled backwards downhill a little bit. Finally Sergei called out, laughing, “Hey! Let us out! We’re frightened!”

Chuckling in fear/relief/tipsiness, we got out and walked the rest of the way up the hill to the astronomical center, which is apparently where we would staying.

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