Bread and salt, milk and honey. Esperanto Karavano 2017

Frans van der Horst, Portland, Oregon, USA

I have contrasting memories of my Esperanto Karavano 2017 during the longest train ride in the world in Russia. Those contrasts became apparent already at the beginning of my journey when I stepped on the 4th of July 2017 from the airplane in Saint Petersburg and walked through the deserted hallways with cryptic Cyrillic messages on the walls, and I realized that I certainly had arrived in a total different world which I didn’t understand.
I felt anxious and forlorn, but in the entrance hall I spotted a small green Esperanto flag, and I knew that there was safety after all and Tatjana , the organizer, and her daughter Maja welcomed me like a long known friend in a language I could understand.
And those observations of extremes all ended in the airplane of Aeroflot with the realization that what had taken us seven days and nights by train to travel the 9288 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok took now less than nine hours flying time, in the comfort of an Airbus plane.

In between those extremes were 18 days of contrasting events which I treasure very much and want to remember for a long time to come. Like taking off our street shoes when we entered a home and to put on slippers (which were provided to us in the train and the airplane), but at the same time we were told that we never should put used toilet paper (yes, I said ‘never’ and ‘used’) in the toilet because that would clog up the sewer, so we had to put it in a container next to the toilet.

Remembering the words of former president Ronald Reagan that Russia was the “evil empire” I thought that food could be poisonous, and I was suspicious of all the uniformed people, but except for being advised to boil the water before drinking, the meals were delicious and nutritious and I didn’t get sick, and the stern looking customs agent at the airport, after meticulously inspecting my passport, smiled when I said ‘spaciba’ and ‘dosvidanja’. Moscow. Domes of the orthodox cathedrals in Russia

The colorful onion-shaped domes of the Archangel’s Cathedral at the Kremlin were in stark contrast with the ubiquitous corrugated roofs of the farm houses scattered all over the countryside, and the tall skyscrapers downtown Moscow were futuristic looking, while the ram-shackled one-story houses looked like they had been built a few hundred years ago or could fall apart any moment.
There was very heavy traffic and nobody seem to obey the speed limits, and there were a multitude of people in the big cities, but I saw no homeless people and no litter, and very little graffiti.

I enjoyed immensely the embracing silence when we took a chairlift up the Sobolinaja mountain with our feet dangling in the air and where people below us gathered mushrooms on the forested slopes and where, arriving at the top, we had a bird’s eye view over the surrounding mountains and Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world as big as Belgium, below us. But I also enjoyed the music, the laughter of children, the dancing and hand-clapping of a group of East Asians and the splashing of the multi-colored water fountains and the happy grunts of men showing off their muscles on parallel bars when we walked at the promenade along the Armur Bay on our last evening in Vladivostok.

In the Kremlin we saw a military parade where more than 100 soldiers in splendid uniforms showed off their skills in marching, handling rifles, firing blanks, and obeying orders from officers seated high on horseback. It was a great spectacle, if only because of the bandmaster’s enthusiasm in conducting the musicians and seeing the beautiful well trained horses. But all that military might stood in stark contrast with the overwhelming silence and mysterious beauty inside the Dormition Cathedral with ancestral saints looking at us as if inviting us to join them in the afterlife.

I even experienced time and space differently in Russia. Seconds are supposed to be very short time units. Hours are much, much longer of duration. Space is to me, what shall I say, like the open spaces of the Midwest in the U.S.A. But Russian seconds seem sometimes to last hours, especially when you have to wait in (the wrong) line, and waiting is a recurrent event in Russia. But hours went bye in the twinkling of an eye, yes, even when you spend four days and nights in a riding train from Moscow to Irkutsk with new friends. And space in Russia is even bigger than the Midwest in the U.S.A., seemingly with no end in sight, with a sky like a vault hanging over you and where you begin to feel very small and insignificant on this earth.

In all the cities I saw renovations of, sometimes very old buildings and churches, as if the past had to be remembered, treasured and restored. Like the Nicholas Triumphal Gate in Vladivostok which was erected in 1891 to honor the visiting czar but was blown to smithereens in 1930 as a protest of a symbol from an old order, and was rebuilt in 2003 and restored into its old glory of another time.

All the beautiful sites of the Peterhof with its splendid buildings, gravity-fed fountains and park-like setting, which was the summer palace 30 kilometers outside Saint Petersburg built by czar Peter the Great because in the summer Saint Petersburg stank too much, the winter palace that Katarina the Great changed into the world famous Heritage museum in Saint Petersburg, the beautiful Moscow and Neva rivers serpentining in between the awe inspiring buildings, they all made me understand why Lenin in 1917 started the revolution that began with the firing of the battleship “Aurora” in the harbor of Saint Petersburg and which changed forever the plight of the millions of peasants in that immense country.

I do remember the hospitality of most of the Russians I met, some of them sharing their food and showing their family photos, even if we didn’t understood each other. The non-caring attitude of some of the people, rest of the soviet area (?), are long forgotten.

But the greatest revelation came to me when I was back in the U.S.A. while writing my thoughts about this journey. It was not the grandeur of the jaw-dropping view over Vladivostok, not the church bells of the numerous churches or the dance show in Moscow, not the enthusiastic sharing of the folk music and fruit cakes in the Peter and Paul fortress, not the subway rides in the big cities or the bus rides in the countryside, not the visit to the Buddhist temple and the calf-splitting climb to the waterfalls in Arshan, not even the moving orthodox church service in the Saint Nicholas cathedral where the icons seem to invite me to step into their frame.

No, that “evil empire” turned out to be in total contrast of what I was led to believe. And the surprise was when I realized that the love of the people who organized this journey and the love for their country was grounded in a great, long, rich history. Their willingness to share the good and the bad, the beauty and the ugliness with foreigners was real. So I finally experienced that there were not only the necessities of life, the ‘bread and salt’, the country was also, thanks to the rich and diverse cultures of many different peoples, overflowing with ‘milk and honey’. Together with the ease it was to communicate in Esperanto with people from seven different countries, each with their own language, which made the charm of my journey in Russia so appealing.
Yes, I left a part of my soul in Russia, I had found the ‘bread and salt’ –the welcoming gifts in Russia, and the ‘milk and honey’ – the symbol of goodness and abundance in the bible. And for that I am profoundly grateful.

Frans van der Horst

St. Peterburg. Smolny cathedral.

St. Petersburg. Smolny cathedral

St. Peterburg. Fountains of Peterhof.

St. Petersburg. Fountains of Peterhof

St. Peterburg. Local orthodox church of Saint Nicholas.

St. Peterburg. Local orthodox church of Saint Nicholas

Moscow. Kremlin in Izmailovo.

Moscow. Kremlin in Izmailovo

Moscow. Background: Novodevichy Convent.

Moscow. Background: Novodevichy Convent

Moscow. Hotel Izmailovo before excursion to the museum.

Moscow. Hotel Izmailovo before excursion to the museum

Lake Baikal. Per chairlift to the Sobolinaja mountain.

Lake Baikal. Per chairlift to the Sobolinaja mountain

reen al la komenco


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