June 22, 2014

It’s hard to believe that one full week has passed since I arrived at camp.  I have pretty much recovered from jetlag and think I have finally started to come to the realization that I’m actually back in Russia.  I have been keeping an extensive journal for several reasons: 1) it helps me to wind down at the end of the day 2) I like to write 3) it helps me organize the many thoughts that I have throughout the day.  My entries are, like most of my thoughts, pretty random, so I will divide this post into different sections to make it easier to follow.  I apologize in advance that this is a long post: I tend to be wordy anyway, but a lot of stuff happened this past week.

Trip to Russia

The trip over to Russia was long, but smooth.  I travelled from Atlanta to JFK, and JFK to Moscow.  In total, I was in the air about 12 hours or so and I dozed off for about 30 minutes over the entire journey.  During my layover in New York, I had my “final” American meal that consisted of a bacon cheese burger, fries, and a coke.  It was so good!  I also grabbed a cup of coffee to stay awake (I was dozing in the airport and didn’t want to miss my flight), which probably explains why I was so wired for most of the flight to Moscow.  I was so happy that the plane had a TV screen to keep me occupied, so the flight itself wasn’t that bad at all.  I also had nice seat mates along the way, which is always a plus when you are travelling in the air for so long.  In the airport, at the passport control station, the agent took an extra-long time looking at my passport.  I guess she was confused to what an African-American female traveling alone was doing in Moscow.  She kept asking me to smile, take off my glasses, and even looked at my passport under a microscope to make sure it was real.  After about 5 minutes or so, I was starting to worry she wouldn’t let me through!  Thankfully, she let me pass and I was able to catch a taxi to the hotel where my advisor, Gwynn, was waiting for me.  It was so great seeing not only her, but other friends living in Moscow.  Everything looked so familiar and brought back so many happy memories.  Like a whirlwind, we had lunch, met a few people, and caught another taxi to the train station.  The train ride from Moscow to Mari El is about 16 hours, which might sound like a nightmare, but I actually enjoy it, especially since all I could think about was sleeping for most of the ride.  At the time we boarded the train, I hadn’t slept in well over 24 hours so I was definitely in need of sleep.  Before I knew it, it was early the next morning and it was almost time to get off our stop, where I knew a group of our friends would be waiting to take us back to camp.

Camp Life

There is something truly special when you look at someone’s face and see that they are just as happy and excited to see you as you are them.  That is the look and feeling I have had many times over the past few days.  It was almost like a dream seeing faces I haven’t seen in person in a few years, giving hugs to campers who had grown a few inches since I last saw them, and squealing with delight when I saw a friend from across the room heading towards me.  I had day dreamed often about what it would be like to be re-united with my friends, but in this case, reality was much better than I could have imagined.

Camp Lesnaya Skazka is much the same as it was when I left.  It was like stepping back in time or as if I had never left.  Same people, food, music, my old room with the same bed, and even dance moves at disco dance parties.  It was cool to see that they hadn’t forgotten about me as I had not about them:  two pictures of me (along with the two other American students who were with me) are featured on the camp’s official poster.  It is huge!  The Americans who visit Mari El and the camps are, in some ways, like legends and myths: the memories of their visits never truly leave the camp.  I was surprised at how easy it was for me to fit right back into the camp routine.  It was like a muscle memory or something.  How weird is it that I feel right at home in the middle of Russia?  Instead of being in awe of the novelty of everything around me, I actually knew my way around camp, how the schedule ran, how to maneuver using the two bathrooms on my floor, etc.  An old camper told me that I now have three homes: one in Georgia, one in Chicago, and one in Lesnaya Skazka.  I couldn’t agree more.

Russian Culture

I think it is important to talk a little about Russian culture, and more specifically, Russian camp life (at least based on my experience at Lesnaya Skazka).  I am by no means an expert, but I probably know more than the average American.  One thing that I had to remember is that Russians, in general, do not smile very often.  There is a quote (I’m not sure by whom) that

basically says that to be Russian is to be cold on the outside, but warm on the inside.  I have found this to be true: some of the people with the most serious faces are some of the most affectionate!  For someone who smiles a lot, even by American standards, it was hard for me to try not to smile too much when I landed in Moscow because I didn’t want to draw even more attention to myself than being black already was.  But here at camp, I feel free to smile all the time.

People have often asked me what I eat at camp and for the most part, it is nothing atypical.  Bread, potatoes, fruit, cucumbers and tomatoes (the typical Russian salad), beef, chicken, soup, and some type of warm cereal for breakfast make up most of my diet.  Russians are also crazy about tea and sweets of any kind.  I have never been much of a sweets person, but I definitely have become a fan of tea after visiting Russia.  You will never find a Russian without a box of tea and a bag of candy.

Four other points to mention.  First, I never ceased to be amazed at the creativity and resourcefulness of Russians.  Every day I see this creativity manifested in the most practical ways and it is truly cool to watch.  Second, driving in Russia is a very scary experience!  The roads are not in great condition because of the drastic changes in temperature between summer and winter. The potholes in Chicago have nothing on the ones in Mari El! Plus, most people drive pretty fast and there are cars frequently passing in front of each other.  I feel safe driving with my friends though; otherwise I would not drive with them!  Third, Russians can really dance!  I guess the stereotype that white people can’t dance only applies to Western Europe.   Disco at camp are some of the best dance parties I have been to.  The entire camp just lets loose and dances their hearts out to techno music mixed with current Russian and American music.  I don’t think you have truly been to a dance party until you have been to one at a Russian camp!  Fourth, there are tons of American culture present throughout Russia.  Most of the shirts I see are in English and feature American symbols, brands, flags, etc.  Russians, in general, listen to American music, watch American movies, and some fashion trends from the past are still alive and well (for example, the mullet is still a thing here).   Very interesting to see so much “American” stuff so far away from home.

Personal Experience

I knew when I received the grant that I battling fatigue after two long quarters of grad school would be one of my biggest challenges and that has proven to be true.  Jetlag definitely didn’t help.  Also, being the center of attention wherever I go is also exhausting! The fact that I am both American and black gives me a double dose of fame in a way.  While some people may have met an American before, they have never seen a person of color in real life.  I am like an exotic creature from the movies, and the fact that I have long braids this summer only adds to the mystery.  Everywhere I go, people stare (often with mouths wide open), do double takes, ask for pictures, and some kids at camp have even come up to rub my skin to see if the “black” will rub off.  The same things happened to me last time, so I expected it, but it still takes some time to get adjusted to.  Honestly, I don’t know if I ever will get used to it.

This time around, while many things are the same, things are completely different in other ways.  Last time, I was at camp with two other students and we were all the rock stars at camp.  This time, it is just me and Gwynn (who by the point is a Mari El icon: this is her 10th summer coming to camp!) so a lot more attention is focused on me.  It is a weird experience that no matter where you go, people are excited to see you. All day long, I have children coming up to me asking for hugs, taking pictures, and saying “hello” about 100 times.  When I walk into the dining room, the kids’ faces just light up and they reach out their hands for me to give them a high-five.  It’s hard to imagine people getting that excited to see me.  But I realize that for most of these kids, I am the closest to America and people of color they may ever get, which is why, no matter how tired I am, I always smile back, take pictures, and give hugs.  What on my part is a smile gesture means the world to the children here and that is truly special.


There have been many special and memorable things that have happened, but here are some that stand out in my mind.
• Seeing old friends and it being like no time had passed.
• Meeting new friends and seeing campers who have grown up to become leaders at camp
• Travelling to the capital city of Mari El (Yoshkar-Ola) several times and enjoying the amusement park (including the new Ferris wheel!)
• First Russian banya!
• Visiting one of my friend’s family’s house for the night and it being considered a holiday that I was there.
• Having Gwynn’s support along the way to help me with my project and being my American counterpart.

• Being called a “hero” by the executive director of camp because I returned back to camp to complete my project here.
• Trying to explain what a water bottle (like a Camelbak) is to people around camp.  Apparently they haven’t caught on here in Russia.
• Having Russian language lessons from campers and counselors and being told that my Russian was good (including the pronunciation).
• Being told that my smile brought warmth and sunshine to camp.
• Counselors enjoying my grandma’s brownies as much as I do.
• Being called “chocolate” by the 3 year old daughter of the camp’s craft director.  She also thought that mine and Gwynn’s names were “hello” because that is what she always hears people around camp say to us when they see us.  Priceless.


I am super excited for the next session at camp to start so I can begin starting my classes! There have been challenges basically at every point imaginable planning this project, but it is almost time for all the hard work to pay off.  Many of my friends have been asking me why I have come back.  They have seen Americans come every year to camp the last 10 years, but people rarely return.  I have explained the grant, my class, and that I just wanted to come back, but my friend Sveta, who has been a counselor at Lesnaya Skazka for a number of years, said it best when she said the following:  “I always ask myself why I always return to Lesnaya Skazka when it looks like nothing special on the outside.  But when I come back, I realize that what we do here is very special and the only place in the world where we can do what we do.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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