Morning brought kvorost (like a doughnut, but shapeless) and oatmeal. We were all draggy. Half of us had to leave right away to catch early flights. We took a million group photos and our hosts gave us little presents. Lyala was leaving on the early bus and I was sorry to see her go…she had become a good friend.
Those of us on the later bus noodled on our electronic devices in the lobby while we waited for our bus. We were headed back a different way than we had come and we were flying out of a whole other city—Mineralnye Vody (which means Mineral Waters). I think the idea was we would get to experience a fuller range of scenery if we left from a different location.
When our bus pulled up you could sure tell someone had complained about the previous, prone-to-breakdowns bus. It was an enclosed double-decker that even had a bathroom. It was so big that each of us had a row of seats to ourselves, which was kind of sad, actually, because there was less socializing. I was caught on the sunny side of the bus and it quickly got hot. I spent the morning in a sleepy, sweaty haze.
We first stopped at a half-constructed ski resort called, “Romantic.” Sergei uttered one word only. “Coffee.” He set off in the direction of the café and I just kind of wandered aimlessly. I was in one of those moods where I definitely wanted something, but I didn’t know what I wanted. Not coffee. Did I want something sweet? I definitely didn’t want any alcohol. Hm, I thought to myself as I wandered alone.
Bad idea. “Did you like the conference?” excitedly asked Ilya, our photographer. “Oh yes, “ I said. “Let me take your photo here. It’s so beautiful on the mountain,” he insisted. So I stood for him and he snapped away. I moved on and he followed. And followed. I stopped to look at some wool socks a vendor was selling. “Do you like these magnets?” he asked. “Uh, sure,” I said. Well, wouldn’t you know it he bought me a goddamn magnet. Oh man this was going to be a long day.
I tried to catch up with other people in our group so I could lose this Velcro Man, but I was so tired that my conversational skills were a bit lacking. Desperate, I just started pointing at things and asking my companions what they were. This is how I wound up buying a churchkhela, a kind of gelatinized grape-juice and nut snack. It was pretty good I guess, but I didn’t want it at all. Somehow I also wound up buying a lush, glistening bunch of bright-red kalina, or snowball-berries. They looked inviting, but after tasting one I realized they were too sour to just eat on their own. The photographer was still shadowing me as I found some of the guys in our crew drinking beer in the café. I knew I didn’t want beer, so I finally just sat down on a lonely bench, even though I knew it would mean that Ilya would sit down next to me. And he did, but not before photographing me. When you’re mildly hungover and overheated, having a man follow you around and photograph you is not your dream situation.
Finally it was time to get back on the bus and we snaked our way down through the mountains. I leaned my head against the window and tried to rest. The two guys in back of me enthusiastically talked about American movies and actors. Both agreed that Nicholas Cage was past his prime. Sharif stopped by my seat for a bit to make me promise to keep in touch. How could I not? Sharif was at the top of my list of favorite people on this trip.
Our next stop was at a place where we could see something called the “Face of Christ,” an eight-meter icon painted on the side of the mountain. It wasn’t discovered until 1999, but some people think it was maybe painted in the 10th century. It was 525 steps to get up to the viewing platform—but in my current state? Yeah, right. This carried the added advantage of saving me from the photographer because he wanted to see the Face of Christ. I browsed the shops nearby and bought some wool mittens. There were furs and skins for sale, as well as Caucasian hats (Monica bought the white one). We ate lunch at a café there so I got to try khychini, the local fried pie. Not bad.
We had a long ride in to Mineralnye Vody and people kept wanting to stop. I think for maybe cigarettes, but no one wanted to admit that, so they kept claiming we needed to stretch our legs. Unfortunately, we kept stopping at completely random places with no amenities. We did eventually stop at a store, but the store had just lost electricity. They couldn’t make any change out of the cash register. Somehow we all cobbled together exact change for whatever it was we wanted. I got some ice cream, which, it turns out, was EXACTLY what I had been wanting all day. I couldn’t help myself and went back and got a second one, to the teasing of my colleagues. Really, I’m just doing them a favor, I explained. Their ice cream is all going to melt soon with no electricity.
The airport in Mineralnye Vody is small but pretty modern. After we pulled all our luggage out of the bus we had to say goodbye to our Stavropol colleagues, who were heading home. I was enveloped in warm hugs and kisses. I deftly shuffled the photographer into an awkward side-hug when he came at me with puckered lips. But I did get misty as I turned to say one last goodbye to the Stavropolians.
The folks inside the airport were very, very friendly. The man who sold me a bottle of water insisted I take two extra napkins and taught me where the most convenient outlet for phone-charging was. The saleslady who told me they didn’t sell aspirin gave me two of her own out of her purse. But I still had a dilemma: what was I going to do with this squishy bunch of kalina berries? I knew I couldn’t just throw them out in the garbage can without inviting scorn from the airport-workers, who had just been so kind to me. I somehow didn’t want them to think I was the sort of person that would waste food. So I snuck down to the restroom and threw the berries away there. You know you need a good rest when you’re dodging imagined berry-related rebuke. And with that, we all flew home to Moscow.