Part 2: A Red Ural City – Krasnouralsk [Красноуральск]

30 Jun

Krasnouralsk Copper Smelter

Viewing any subject from an outside perspective is as delicate and complex as it is sometimes essential. When working to solve a problem in school, complete a home maintenance project, throw a party, or design new technology, a distanced voice can bring in a completely unexpected line of thinking. Little more than a word or action at the right time can trigger a dormant thought in someone who has been conceptualizing for hours, days, or even years. I think everyone has experienced this is some facet.

However, applied to sensitive personal topics, defensive tendencies quickly become a factor as well. Think of a time when a parent, teacher, or friend presented an idea, possibly advice, that was contrary to what you wanted or thought. Suddenly the process is painful, awkward, and sometimes ignored. Further, this entire process can take place without any conscious effort or awareness.

Really, all it takes is a question. What is life like here? Those above are trite examples, but coming in to someone’s town and asking details about life must be approached delicately.

 

Krasnouralsk

Anya’s grandmother lives in Krasnouralsk [pronounced Krasnah- uralsk], a town much more a true monogorod than Pervouralsk. It is far away from everything, and the only industry there is copper. Daria, Anya, Christine, and I set off in the morning for what was to be the most interesting day thus far. With the town about 3 hours away from Yekaterinburg, we were given a ride by a friendly man of few words, Iligiz, whom we named our “Silent Driver.”

 

Ilgiz, the "Silent Driver"

A quick tangent about this. I am constantly reminded by both walking and vehicle experiences alike, that being a driver in Russia is somewhat of an elite class. The roads are bad, the cars often broken, the rules are vague and ignored, and the pace is always fast. Driving is certainly not the cushioned armchair experience that most endure much like a coma back in the states. There are axle-breaking potholes, pedestrians, and other cars to be avoided at all times and a sidewalk or playground is a legitimate route. Don’t slow down, just go. Here, driving is a uniquely honed skill and is what drivers do despite other jobs. They drive. Anyways, thanks Ilgiz for probably being the safest driver I’ve ridden with!

 

Ok, so back on track.

 

We entered Krasnouralsk, a city of 28,000 inhabitants, in late morning fog and light rain. Our anticipation only increased with every car-sized puddle in the middle of our road, rustic wooden house peeking out from a garden, leathered old man on a classic bicycle, and every obviously Soviet-concrete building that we passed.

Krasnouralsk, just outside of downtown. Photo by Christine Armbruster

Krasnouralsk's School No. 6

At School No. 6, we had an arranged tour of the local town museum and an interview with one of its curators. It was not an easy arrangement. People in these smaller cities, especially those from older generations, are suspicious and afraid to talk to us. Why are Americans coming? Who are they? What do they want? What connections do they have with the government? I want to be identity-neutral because of it.

 

It makes sense though, I guess. Change happens more slowly in small towns and these are people who were raised in the very real fear and suspicion of the Cold War. Outside the boundaries of the progressive, modern city we are not hip foreign friends. We are the shadow of a once powerful terror whose memory still lurks in the darkness of these small, quieter places. The wake of the past, indeed. And yet we come with the allure of intrigue…

Krasnouralsk - Working in the museum. Photo by Christine Armbruster

 

Krasnouralsk - One of many models in the Museum

The museum was small and overcrowded with bits of history which, to me, made it more interesting and genuine. They were proud of so many born in Krasnouralsk that had grown into greatness. There were soldiers who received prestigious medals, many for valiant death in combat, and even a cosmonaut. The only irony I could find is that it seemed none of the honored faces now hanging on their walls had stayed in their town. Some had come back to visit, but fame came from beyond their quiet city limits.

 

 

 

 

Mrs Irina Ivanovna. Photo by Christine Armbruster

Mrs. Irina Ivanovna, a curator and teacher, reminded me of many personalities whom I’ve met in her position around the world. She was the soft yet sure, optimistic type who was certainly meant to tirelessly guide children into their bright and even not so bright futures. From her vantage point, life there was simple. Enough jobs were available for those who wanted them and qualified. Everyone else left. She kept a large garden with cucumbers, tomatoes, and even a watermelon, though admittedly small, to help save money and because she loved working with the soil. I admire her, and her work. The world needs more quality teachers. And yet I felt that so much about the town was left unsaid. Sometimes leaving to find a job is not so simple. And sometimes having a job doesn’t make staying easy.

 

Krasnouralsk, students of School No. 6

Leaving to school, we met some of those guided youth of the school. We were quite the spectacle to them. I doubt many foreigners, let alone Americans have ever visited this town or this school. It was not too long after leaving the school that we started getting phone calls. All of our passport and travel information, along with the recordings we just made were wanted. There was talk of us coming to the town illegally and breaking in to the school without permission. I guess an official invitation and a security escort in doesn’t count as permission. Anyways, we said no and the phone calls stopped. Strange.

 

 

 

Anya and her Grandmother, Valentina

 

Mrs. Valentina's cooking is 'The Best!"

Anya’s Grandmother, Valentina, then welcomed us into her home. It was an adorable apartment and she fed us wonderful food, including the best homemade blini I will probably ever taste. We were, in fact, the first foreigners she had ever met. That in itself is a wild concept for me to understand. However, she has always lived far from any sort of tourism in a country that was more or less closed for the better part of a century. When informed of what we had been told about Krasnouralsk in the school museum, she scoffed. Though too shy to allow us an interview, she told us of real problems with , unemployment, crime, and pollution. ‘The tap water is yellow today. I don’t know why’ and ‘The leaves on plants here turn yellow almost as soon as they appear. It is like autumn in the beginning of summer, only it is caused by pollution.’

Pollution poisoned leaves - early June

From Mrs. Valentina’s apartment, we went walking. By this time the sun was out and a beautiful day for a stroll had settled in. She took us to the main city square, and down the main street to where the copper mine and smelter facilities were situated. Copper is the only real job source in Krasnouralsk, and the reason for its name which means Red Ural Town. Other than the mine and smelter, there is a pizza shop, a grocery store, some school, and a bit of administration. I would suspect that somewhere there is also and auto mechanic and a few other service related businesses, though I never saw them.

 

Vasiliy

While standing in front of this mighty central source of this city’s life, a shift at the plant let out. That is how we met Vasiliy, a young intelligent man who works as an electrician. Anya and I had started trying to strike up conversations with workers on their way home, and he was one of the few willing to talk with us. Later, he even arranged for us to meet him and his friends at a cafe for further discussion.

 

It is an interesting art to discuss life on honest terms. Not to idealize and not to overly criticize. We lead a discussion with Vasiliy, Kirill, Katya, Aleksei, and Tanya for 90 minutes, and learned more about the basic advantages and problems with life in Krasnouralsk, similar towns, and Russia in general than we could have in days of discussion with others.

Vasiliy, Tree, Tanya, Katya, Kirill, Aleksei, Christine and Anya in the mirror

First let me say that these people love their city. It is familiar, comfortable, and quieter than big cities. Vasiliy will soon be moving his fiance her son to Krasnouralsk, and is excited for this. Many of the problems were expected. In a town with only one industry, jobs will be limited. One issue that I had never heard of, and is not limited to small towns, is that of Black and White envelope salary.

 

White Envelope salary is standard, documented pay workers pay taxes on. However, because many businesses is Russia are unregistered and illegal, or only partially registered, many workers have problems with receiving all or a large portion of their salary in an illegal, undocumented form. Black Envelope. This can be good because people with lower salaries can avoid paying higher taxes to the government and therefore keep more of their earnings. This is also quite bad because it throws any sort of minimum wage or salary standard out of the window. Further, it means that paychecks are far from being assured, and no government complaint can be filed for Black Envelope wages not paid.

 

With the cost of living being far higher than the typical White Envelope wage of a Krasnouralsk worker, the Black portion is completely critical to making rent and eating and doesn’t leave room for petitioning for change.

 

Another long term issue with Black Envelope pay is that because it is illegitimate it certainly does not count towards any sort of pension fund for retirement. As salaries are not high enough to allow for any substantial savings, this is quite a big issue. One must work until unable to work. Dreams of enough capital to start business are even further from reach.

 

Krasnouralsk has more to tell, I am sure of it. And so we will soon return to spend more time with our new friends. Christine will write on Polevskoy, a larger city we recently visited. As for right now, we are currently on board a train to a region north of Perm, near Kizyel. There is quite a bit of doubt about what, when, and how much we will be able to film or photograph, but it should make for some interesting stories at very least.

 

Part 1: A quick glance at success- Pervouralsk [Первоуральск]

20 Jun

 

Pervouralsk as I remember it, trying to hitchhike out

 

Life, in Russia, moves with a dizzying shift of pace. A traveler, visitor, or local alike must be in the same moment ready to wait patiently for weeks or embark immediately and without notice to take advantage of an opportunity. To not be able to cope with either polar scenario is to not be able to survive here.

Christine and I left Kazan, without any tangible success after what felt like so much investment in planning and networking, because there was an inhibiting holiday. We left for Yekaterinburg instead of Ufa because of an inside contact with a company helping to restructure parts of an industry in Pervouralsk. When, due to legitimate circumstances outside of all our control, the opportunity vanished, I began to feel as if we would never make any progress. In one swift moment, an explosion reacted into our journey another dead-end to a path. However, all adventurers must quickly learn to shoot off in another direction without dwelling on the failure of one.

A view from our bus to Pervouralsk

Our new direction came from our dear friends Daria and Anya. Daria took us to meet a family living in Pervouralsk for a personal tour of the city as well as interviews. Rustam Madisovich Ishanov and Rimma Mikolaevna Ishanov, along with their daughter Julie, graciously invited us into their home for delicious food and conversation. Both parents worked for most of their lives in the police force, eventually retiring from that service. Now, Rustam Madisovich is a detective for a local factory and Rimma Mikolaevna works with delinquent youth. They are good people and were friendly in sharing their opinions, thoughts, and local history.

Rustam Madisovich Ishanov and Rimma Mikolaevna Ishanov - photo by Christine Armbruster

 

The Ishanov family and us after our discussion

The city is possibly one of the purest examples anyone could find of a successful monogorod. We were told that through a strong community and responsible local government, Pervouralsk has been unusually stable. The city is known for high-grade metal piping, an industry that goes back to the original village settlement in the 1700’s, and was given city status in the 1930’s.

The mayor, we were told, has been a consistent advocate of encouraging outside investment from strong companies both from elsewhere in Russia and abroad. This has resulted in an unusually low unemployment rate just over 1% and a steady economy, which incidentally means the crime rate is also quite low.

 

Smoke stacks from one of the pipe plants

Walking around the city on our own seemed to confirm most of this information. The problems here seemed just the same as anywhere else, and not especially those of a struggling monogorod. Of course there was crime, alcohol, drugs, layoffs, and poverty, but not enough to grab undue attention. Pervouralsk, as a community, has really done well for itself.

 

 

 

Pervouralsk's central rec park - family

Families were out everywhere, enjoying the central park and going for walks. I sat near the park fountain and just watched for a while. The scene was quite wholesome: Children running around;teenagers skateboarding, BMX biking and rollerblading; parents enjoying a moment to sit.

 

 

 

Pervouralsk's central park - very curious child

In fact, it all seemed very much like an overly surreal scene from a disaster movie where the director is trying to show an innocent, beautiful, happy community just before it is torn apart by aliens. Or something along those lines. I couldn’t find a drunkard to taint the mood within a few thousand feet and, I’ll be honest, it made me feel a little on edge.

 

 

Two men working on a Lada.

On our way out of the city, we met the owner of a small shashlik café, who invited us in and treated us to some barbecue. He also liked his city, but his place was rowdy with loud music about gulags and plenty of inebriated dancing to balance out the rest of downtown. Even cake needs salt.

 

 

 

As if to throw in one closing sales pitch of its pleasant nature, Pervouralsk even threw in a classy, not overstated sunset as we waited for someone who would pick up three odd, Yekaterinburg bound hitchhikers. It was a nice town and a good start for gaining perspective, but after two days it was time to move on.

Pervouralsk - Bus at sunset

Look for part 2, coming soon (24 hours?), on Krasnouralsk: the town that welcomed us, and then quickly wanted us gone (officially, anyhow).

 

And thus it really begins

13 Jun

If a woman is pregnant in Russia, you are not supposed to ask when the baby is due. If asked, you will get an answer like “in the spring” or “soon.” It is superstition. Just the same, you do not celebrate a birthday before the actual day, but only after. It is the superstition that you cannot predict the future. If the universe wills, you will have that baby or that birthday, but until it actually happens there is no guarantee.

For that reason, I will not reveal the details of the next leg in our journey. Rather, I’ll just let you know that everything is starting to come into place quite nicely. After some setbacks, we will be heading to our first town today. We have had a hard time getting started, which makes me understand this superstition just a little bit more. As it would be said in America, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

We are currently getting ready for our first town and our first interviews: gathering up equipment and making sure batteries are fully charged. We have had some difficulty at first getting some interviews set in stone. There have been people we were hoping to talk to that have fallen through and connections that did not pan out, including the powerful lead that brought us here much sooner than planned. But, we carry on. This is the nature of what we do. As we are asking one favor after another in order to make this project happen, we have to learn how to be flexible along the way. However, Ekaterinburg has treated us quite well in the meantime. It has given us plenty of experiences and good stories, and we have met all sorts of old and new friends. Currently, we are staying with Dasha, a girl with many connections in these small towns we are trying to get to. To boot, she is studying to become a translator. Two quite wonderful things that she has been sharing with us as she helps us to keep going forward.

Thanks to her, we have a few day trips planned out for the next week. We will be working with family members of those who we have met, in their home towns. So far we have a busy and exciting week coming up. And perhaps even some posts will be coming soon with stories of interviews and photos from them.

 

Alexander and his mother, sitting outside of their home further out from Ekaterinburg's center.

A sunrise and a fisherman (two separate but complete thoughts on Kazan)

10 Jun

2:45am in Kazan

The sun rises in the east towards a new day as we walk from Cuba Libre towards our temporary flat in the east. We spent the evening in the west of Kazan with recently made friends at a Cuban themed bar. They naturally served Mexican food and mojitos by the liter. Welcome to Cuba. Walking towards the sun, the sun which is now rising at 2:30am, you can see a noticeable difference in the light between one side of the sky and the other. We continue further east and even south, wondering what it would be like up in the Arctic Circle as we had originally mapped out. Two more weeks till summer solstice and the nights are quickly shortening. Originally clocking in at six-hour nights when I first arrived a month ago, to the four short hours now. I wonder if one day soon I will see a simultaneous sunset and sunrise by the time the earth decides to retreat back away from the sun until mid-December when it will change its mind once more.

 

Two days ago we met a man by the name of Fernice. He is a retired accordion professor, now fisherman, with half a mouth full of gold teeth and a friendly smile. He let us talk to him while he casted for fish in the wide river near Kazan’s Kremlin. He has a daughter about my age, a ballerina in St. Petersburg. My father has a restless photographer currently traversing across Russia, talking to strangers in a language she does not really know. Now retired, Fernice spends his days fishing. My father’s dream. While talking, he flagged down a runner on the road up from the river. It was his neighbor whose name I cannot seem to either find nor remember. He used to be a smoker and a drinker, now running two marathons a week. No one was helping him with his problems, and so, he decided to do something for himself. He claims that there are sports that are wonderful and good, but you have to put in 200% in order to succeed. This comes from not only having to work for yourself, but relying on others as well. Running is just you. You do not have to depend on anyone else, it is your decision as to how well or poorly you do. I think that is why I like traveling. As dependent as you become on others, it is still up to you whether you sink or swim. Making the most out of your time or counting down the days until your return to familiar faces and a secure bed is solely your choice. We wish we could have spent more time with Fernice, hearing more stories of his life as he throws some crumbs into the fiver near his pole. Unfortunately, we move on.

Once a heavy drinker and smoker, now a bi-weekly marathon runner

Fernice, once an accordion professor, now a full time fisher

 

Fernice fishing on a river dividing the two sides of Kazan.

 

We are quickly moving further east onto Ekaterinburg, currently on a train Asia bound. Yes, Asia. It still shocks me sometimes to realize that I will be on a different continent for the next month or so. I had realized that Russia is part of Asia, but I never really knew what to make of it. There are information websites that list countries by continent, Russia being its own separate category as no one knows whether to list it with Europe or with Asia. It seems as if no one is exactly sure as to what to make of it. Perhaps it will be completely different on the other side of the Urals, or maybe it will be just like birthdays, where one day you wake up 23 and feel as if you were still 22. Except this time you are waking up in Asia, thinking you are still in Europe.

 

 

That first step Eastward

9 Jun

 

Kazan Kremlin and Mosque

Tuesday, Christine and I made it to Kazan. Though a small step in the scope of this entire project, I feel that this was an encouraging accomplishment. I was able to purchase, all in Russian and with no assistance, train tickets from Moscow to here. I know that to many this probably does not sound like much, but Russian ticket queues and acquisition are actually quite intimidating. The lines are long and close without warning no matter how long you have waited in them. This happened at least five times and was reason for us missing the train we actually intended to take. Beyond that, the women working each ticket station are generally not of a jovial disposition and willing to slow down their speech for a clumsy foreigner. Luckily, the woman at the end of our final line had not been on her shift long and was very polite, despite speaking quickly and wanting to hurry us along. We should have taken a picture of my accomplished grin when those tickets were finally in my hand after nearly 3 hours.

 

And so, we rode a train through the night and out of Moscow. The city lights faded from the windows until all I could see was blackness behind my reflection. I was hoping for a more daytime ride so that people would be awake to meet and enjoy and the scenery would be visible as we rumbled passed. However, the quiet night was good for collecting my thoughts and projecting on the days to come.

 

Kazan Kremlin

Kazan is much smaller than Moscow, and for that I am excited. Often if I am not familiar with an area, I feel overly solitary in places where many millions reside. The people are too accustomed to people being everywhere. I do not yet know this place and it is not a small city, by any means, but it was a move in the comfortable direction.

 

Anyhow, we arrived to good and partially bad news. We discovered an unexpected and pleasant place to stay in the form of a couple, Aidan from Glasgow and Marina from Moscow, with a spare bedroom in their new flat. Further, their friend Maria is intrigued by the project and is willing to accompany us to Kamskiye Polyany (Камские Поляны) for adventure and help in translation. Win! However, this coming weekend is a Tatar holiday where the celebrations apparently get quite wild and rough. We were advised by Maria that, if we like out teeth and cameras, this is not the time to go. For about two weeks.

 

 

Aidan, Jhenya, Luke, Christine, and Maria (top row, L to R, Bottom L to R)

So we will move on to Yekaterinburg where we have an exciting contact in a nearby steel town, and visit Kamskiye Polyany on our way back to Moscow. Maria, the wonderful person that she is, has agreed to help us when we return. I am very much looking forward to that. From what I have read, it should be a fascinating town.

With our unexpected free time, Christine and I met up with a fellow traveler named Luke from Britain. The three of us explored the city and met some interesting people. Most memorable was a retired accordion professor who we found fishing in the Kazanka and Volga confluence. I will let Christine write on that, so keep an eye out for her upcoming pictures and post.

 

I am anxious to get to our first project town and hope that we will have some material of substance very soon. For now, enjoy a few photos.

Our goodbye to Lilya and Siarhei before leaving Moscow

 

Teeth this way!

Kazan Mosque

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quarter of a Century in Russia

3 Jun

 

 

Metro Bunny

So here I am, finally in Russia. I have now been ‘on the road’ for an entire month, yet am just now into the first leg of my summer a half day around from all the things I know well.

 

Christine and I are currently staying with a wonderful young couple, Lilya and Serhei. They live about an hour train commute (which includes various transfers) from city center in a relatively secluded, beautiful area of Moscow proper. Their house is completely surrounded by a wild garden of flowers, trees, and everything green.

 

 

 

Lilya and Serhei's kitchen

First Breakfast in Lilya and Serhei's kitchen

My first morning started with this. You know life is really hard when you wake up to a delicious breakfast of cereal and fruit accompanied by this kitchen and view. I love my life. Thanks, Lilya and Serhei for being such great hosts.

This morning, as Christine, Lilya and I sat talking in the kitchen a May Beetle (looks like what I’ve always known as a June Bug) flew in the window and came to rest on my hand. When I approached the window and put my hand outside, the little shiny creature walked to the tip of my finger, opened its shell to reveal its wings in a very matter of fact way, and flew off in the other direction. That is a fairly pointless story other than being a reminder of how everything is different and yet the same here.

 

 

Ykhtomskaya Train Stop

photo by Christine Armbruster

Cowboy Tree - photo by Christine

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of my existence. Existence outside the womb anyhow. We spent the day running around downtown Moscow working on any shots we might need of the big city for the project. Later we met with our new friend Vladimir, whom we first met under a bridge by the Moscow river walk. He took us to his flat where we were treated with home-made pizza and beer.

Redemption Songs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a good portion of the night playing each other songs on a simple guitar that was impossible to tune correctly for more than a single chord. Yet, coupled with a confident voice everything fell into place. Vladimir pulled out a book and played us countless, sometimes stuttering renditions of popular Russian classics. Most of the lyrics were lost on me, but the melodies were catchy and the feelings beyond any language barrier. It was the most genuine introduction to cultural music I think I will ever encounter.

 

Vladimir

Vladimir currently lives in a smaller district just outside of Moscow called Lubitsa. His mother passed away from liver cancer a few years ago and he has no contact with his father. He loves his home town and his country despite the many problems he told us about. Because of this love, he wants change and says that he will be a part of bringing that change about. Honesty and optimism make a powerful combination, I think. Thank you, Vladimir. You really are a wonderful person.

 

Soon we will be heading to Kazan, and from there to Kamskiya Polyany. This will be the first monogorod of the trip.

Tonight, we are going to see what Moscow is like between 10pm and 8am.

 

Tree

Points on a map

23 May

Sometimes I feel like everything bad happens to you right before something good does, or on the other side, that it is quietest right before the storm.  That’s just how balance exists.  I’m going to use that as an excuse as to why the blog has been slow lately during this lull right before the project quickly picks up.

Image taken at a dacha while setting up a shot for the series Christine's currently working on.

 

What really has been happening is I have been working on a series of short documentary films in Moscow, while Tree is traversing across the US. Come that first day of June, however, it’s going to be madness until August and then longer for post-production.  So I guess my theory still holds true.

 

Right before we left, we underwent the insane process of finding every town we had heard of, writing them in on maps, and then pinning out the 450+ towns we could find.  There are over 1,500 in existence.  Just looking at the map is overwhelming, and it’s only 1/3 of what’s out there.  I can’t imagine what it would look like with the rest of the towns on there.

Only a small part of Russia, filled with pins of monogorods.

 

Tree mapping out towns and marking them on our giant map of Russia for upcoming promotional video.

 

We picked our top seventeen and now are starting the daunting task of figuring out how to get from one to the next as many do not have highways or trains connecting.  In the meantime, because one project is never enough, we’re also putting together a short promotional video for the project.  So be looking forward to that in the near future.

 

 

Featured on www.whysored.blogspot.com

 

On a different note, we got our first little piece of publicity on an Eastern European blog “Why So Red?“.  Taylor Merkley talks about this project and talks about research she did in Lütte, Germany and how the two stories parallel.  Interesting stories like this can be found throughout the world, of communities who have seen hard times and are now figuring out what can now be done.  So while you’re waiting for us to hit the ground running, go check it out and read the nice little article on our project.

-Christine

 

Salt Lake to San Antone

7 May

Written Thursday May 5, 2011

Just 60 miles outside of San Antonio, Christine and I are nearing the close of our third day of travel. Tuesday saw us an appropriately awkward farewell from Provo. We were delayed by unforeseen bureaucracy from Christine’s university, which elongated our goodbyes. Goodbyes, in my opinion, are typically unpleasant by nature and therefore not something I care endure any longer than necessary. Prior to that my alarm came, of course, too soon into a morning after a night of expected anxious restlessness. Though intellectually I knew that I needed a good night’s rest over packing and re-packing my bag, preoccupation is a complex issue. And so I spent the night debating the vitality of each item to make its way into my bag of treasures again and again. Every time the size and weight seemed too much and the contents too few.

 

Equipment: 1 Video Camera, 1 Shotgun mic, 1 Lavalier mic, 1 Audio recorder, 1 Digital SLR with a 16-35mm lens, 1 35mm Film SLR with 2 lenses, 1 tripod, 1 home-built steady-cam, 25+ various batteries,  Too many chargers and cables, but each with a frustratingly unique purpose, A tiny photo/video editing computer, 2 portable hard drives, and a bundle of memory cards.

Personal Items: 1 bag of toiletries, 1 pair of shorts, 5 pairs of underwear, 7 pairs of socks, 4 shirts, 1 swimsuit, 1 small towel snatched from a ubiquitous cheap motel swimming pool, a sleeping bag, 3 books (one, a dictionary), and 1 map of Russia

On top of that I have the pair of pants, underwear, shirt, hoodie, and flip-flops I wore out the door.

 

Calling it a bag at this point seems to undermine the true function of this particular bag at this particular time. After all, given the full scope of contents and role, it feels more correct to call it my home; The only consistency until I step, timidly I imagine, back to the familiar soil, grass, carpet, and embraces of what I’ve left behind. My shelter. My space. My hope. All contained in this bag of a home…and I love it.

Wednesday was spent in the collage-cities of the Phoenix valley. It was encouraging to see that many of the half-built shopping centers, apartment buildings, and houses of 2007 are now newly finished or at least nearly so. Not so encouraging was the unusually high number of houses for sale, foreclosed, or abandoned per block just in driving around. In parallel, as one might expect, nearby shopping centers were similarly barren.

I was shocked to find that the very shopping center mentioned as the “usual collection” where the northern intersection of the Loop-101 and the I-17 occurs to be one of these stricken former shop locals. The movie theater and a pair of restaurants made up the majority of still open businesses where once at least two dozen had been.

 

By recommendation, we also ventured out to some of the outskirt towns that had been hit particularly hard. One particularly bad vantage point contained an unobstructed view of at least 5 abandoned homes within a 360 degree view. Video of that later.

 

 

 

One shopping center we found was entirely devoid of businesses. It was in a good location right across the street from a reasonably sized neighborhood on the east side, some gas stations and a Lockheed aircraft facility of some sort across from the Goodyear Airport to the south. I’m curious about it’s utterly vacant state.

 

 

Anyhow. I am finishing this post a day and a half late for which I apologize. It is also late at night now and we have an early start tomorrow to procure a few last-minute items (such as a pair of shoes and a compression sack for my sleeping back because I ripped the last one). So I bid you all good night.

 

Tree

What Stays and What Goes

3 May

Today we leave Provo for nearly four months.  Beginning in Provo, down to San Antonio where we will split, Tree working from Seattle to New York and I straight to Moscow where I will find him at an airport at the end of the month.

Just a few days ago, I was informed that due to a lack of business, the leaser of my new house was not getting a paycheck.  Therefore upcoming rent would have to be paid through acquiring debt and if the next paycheck didn’t come either, she would have to move.  In the meantime I would have to move out just incase she couldn’t make it while I was gone.  In the meantime as in the five days before I left, three of which I would be in Seattle.  Just the story we set off to document, now quickly crashing into my own life as I took one car load to the dumpster, another to a donation center, and the last bit into boxes to store until I return to Utah to deal with them.  My life dream of being able to fit everything I own in my car becoming a reality as I take what I can grab and run.

I have lived 2 ½ months out of a backpack and about to stretch that personal record to 4.  Why cannot I just make that bag my only bag of belongings?  I came out to Utah with three suitcases.  It baffles me to see that those three suitcases has turned into three car loads full of materials I can’t seem to throw away.

It’s interesting how when you get to a point where you have to walk away what becomes important and what gets left by the wayside. Those trinkets and necklaces that have been saved since I was a child are now too heavy or compiled together just take up one more box full of stuff that cannot fit in my allotted car space.  A new meaning has been realized for the term “economy car”.  Years of safekeeping things and they end up in the donation pile.  A single earring from a set that once was my grandmothers, a necklace purchased in Croatia, the last slip of paper a best friend wrote on before we stopped talking nearly two years ago.  Sometimes I think of those things and wonder if there really wasn’t enough space or if I could have squeezed one more small ring into a box.  Do you pack the things you absolutely cannot live without first and throw away the rest without looking?  Or do you painfully sort through everything and pick out the bad parts and try to take the rest?  It’s the choice to make between if there is a fire or if you were moving back home after college.  But what about when you are walking away from your home?  There was never an assembly about that in school.  We never had eviction drills.

I sit here in self-pity then realize, this is exactly what I am going to document.  Apparently it is not enough for me to just read about it, but I get to experience it first hand.  Naturally, not as bad as those we will be talking to as I’ve only been out of the house for five years and haven’t acquired that much.  Nor do I have a family.  Nor has my career been shattered.  I have simply had some plans fall through a few days before I take off and now get to move into a friend’s garage, in hopes that something will turn up in the next four months so I am not a permanent fixture in that garage.  At least I have that as an option, and that’s better than nothing.

 

-Christine

Remembering the Beginning

26 Apr

Late 2007 I remember making an isolated drive from Utah’s Salt Lake valley to the rapidly creeping mega-suburbia of the Phoenix-conglomerate in Arizona. My mother had moved to Glendale during the housing and job boom of just a few years earlier and every time I had returned to the collage cities of Glendale, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Peoria, Mesa, Tempe, and more it had expanded impossibly.

When I first visited Arizona family in the early 1990’s I witnessed orange orchards across the street from their 55th and Cactus house. A decade later they were gone. The line I recalled from my later teenage years as where the houses and shopping centers came to a halt and the free desert opened was so quickly being shoved away from the city center that I doubted my memories.

It used to be that when my friends and I would make the journey to our secluded retreats out past Lake Pleasant park grounds, riding north on the I-17 was a definitive escape from the city. Where the northernmost intersection of the Loop-101 and I-17 happens there was the usual collection of a movie theater, some restaurants, shops and a few nearby neighborhoods. At night, the thick light density would steadily taper off into an easy unending black broken only by the slow but constant trickle of cars heading back south into the city. After a time, a lonely convenience plaza was reached right when a departure from the interstate was made for the west bound Carefree Highway. From there you could access what was, for us, the closest expanse of empty wilderness we had; No lights save for the few wandering late night travelers if you stuck to the highway and the lonesome regional park something or other light if you struck out for the marina.

Since then, every time I re-entered the Phoenix valley from the high and winding path out of Flagstaff the scenery had changed. The marching line of lights had surged onward from ending somewhere near Deer Valley Rd to pressing so desperately up against the mountains at Anthem that I wondered sometimes if the rocky barrier between there and Flagstaff stood a chance.

2007 was different. That oceanic force of a booming economy had crashed and receded. Making the spectator drive of American progress, this time I saw not bustling construction sites with ceaseless movement of machines and men. Nor did I see shopping centers replete with “NOW OPEN” signs so new they smelt of drying paint and freshly laid asphalt from the invading roads. I saw nearly finished apartment buildings, neighborhoods, and centers abandoned mid-project by construction workers and investors alike with “LOT FOR SALE” signs hanging from the partial structures and “FOR RENT” where “NOW OPEN” had just hung. What had happened?

Economists and fifth grade teachers alike had lied. Infinite growth is not possible, and yet somehow we defied our own logic and believed. I write this from the sobering perspective that last Friday, April 15, 2011 my own dear mother walked away from her foreclosed home. Like so many thousands of other mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and grown children, she walked away from her house and all the dreams that were represented by its solid foundation, warm walls, and protective roof. Крыша (Kreesha), the Russians say. Shelter. Hope. Protection.

Shaksha

The closed factory next to resulting houses

Nine months previous I was standing in a patch of dusty balding grass, slowly turning to absorb the absurd panorama surrounding me. The absurdity came in the form of a large, closed factory standing so shamelessly proud against the contrast of dis-guarded-hodgepodge homes. Small shelters of collected wood, wire, and sheet metal huddling not a thousand feet from a nostalgic, Soviet-era concrete apartment building. At one point this town had been new. The buildings had been livable shelters before it had been necessary to scavenge for junk material that could be used to build a safer home in the form of a shanty. This was Шакша (Shaksha). How many mothers and fathers there had watched the only factory in town close its gates decisively on their hopes? Around 10,000.

And these towns are everywhere.


 

Tree Gore

Originally written and posted April 22, 2011