Friday, 13 July 2012

Ride 'em cowboy!
On Saturday the 14th of May, dedicated to St Matthias, on the way to Debretovka in brighter weather i could see a cattle-herder on horseback and felt bound to take a photo – a Russian cowboy! In the village a lady invited me to rest in her garden, brought me some elevenses and sent me away with a bag of hard-boiled eggs; i gave her my email address, in case it might prove useful to her cousin, who was studying English. After a mini nap, a little further on at the Orthodox Church i spoke briefly to the friendly young priest, enquiring whether there is a connection between the words ‘Cossack’ (long associated with the Don river and the Steppes) and ‘Kazakh’. Both words in fact are rooted in a Turkic word meaning ‘free man’. From there i walked quite a long way towards Divnoye, conscientiously turning down about ten spontaneous offers of lifts, before finally accepting one from a Baptist pastor called Yuri (George in English), since he also offered me a place to stay, with friends of his. They turned out to be a wonderfully hospitable couple with nine young children (six boys and three girls), he a native Ukrainian and she Russian. After a wash i was given some delicious food, and had another pleasant evening in which my pictures made an appearance - i gave the photo of a Dutch windmill to the Pastor, as he’d once visited Amsterdam. They then put me on a converted sofa, in a room with some of the older boys. In the morning we all went by car to their Sunday service back down the road in Ipatovo. The ‘church’ in fact was no more than someone’s living room with a row of benches, and on the wall a verse from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father” (Rom 6:4). I offered to remove my badge with Our Lady of Guadalupe for the service, but was surprised to be told by the pastor that i didn’t need to. In normal circumstances of course i would have tried to find a Catholic church for Sunday Mass - as Catholics are required to do, within reason. But it’s perhaps worth recalling that, while we cannot strictly-speaking recognise the priesthood of Protestant clergy, some of them are doubtless better ministers of God’s Word, and more effective servants of His will, than are some priests, however much we may insist that this is not a reflection of the overall picture. 
   Considering the length of time they’d had to sit through the service (about two hours), during Bible class afterwards the children were mostly remarkably well-behaved, though they did get a bit restless towards the end. We drove back to Divnoye (a word which translates, roughly, as ‘amazing’), where my hosts gave me a miniature edition of the New Testament, and Pastor Yuri gave me another book of New Testament scriptures, containing his contact details, in case i found myself in need of assistance. I left the family with a Russian language book on the Divine Mercy and, as ever, a promise to write.
   Heading east from there, in the evening i was given another warning about ticks from some guys who offered me a lift – it’s essential to tuck one’s trousers into one’s socks, to deny them access to bare skin. The night was spent quite comfortably under a bridge with an immense swamp on both sides of the road; thankfully, while the Russians may have cowboys, they don’t have alligators. In fact i reflected that, with a Bittern booming among the myriad sounds of other birds and amphibians, the only danger, apart from insects, was that i might be disturbed by a National Geographic camera crew!
Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Elista
   On the next morning i accepted another lift, from a man in his mid-thirties, through very sparsely populated steppes to Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Being of more or less the same generation, we agreed that Mexico ’86 set the standard for World Cups to follow; i believe the organisers of Russia’s World Cup in 2018 should see it as their model, right down to the so-called “Aztec” balls. He stopped for a conversation with his boss for a few minutes on route, who kindly gave me a bottle of milk and some rolls, though also a bag of fresh eggs that i knew could present me with difficulties. When we reached Elista i decided to hang them on the gate of a Catholic church dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. That was opposite a huge and imposing temple; Burkhan Bakshin Altan Süm (Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni), built in 2005, housing the largest Buddha in Europe – but leaving me with a strong impression that Europe would soon be behind me, if it wasn’t already. After a visit there i enjoyed my first ever cup of very milky Kalmytski (Kalmyk) chai (tea). In the evening i splashed out on a nice kebab in a restaurant with a map of the Mongol Empire on the wall, so instead of forking out for a hotel room i walked on and found a patch of ground in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city. The morning light revealed (i think) a collared flycatchers’ nest on the wall above my head; then it was bright and sunny as i made my way to a petrol station cafe around lunchtime. While there i was called over for a conversation with two Chechens who, being Muslim, well understood my Hajj mentality. The recent Grozny football match came up, clearly a significant coup for the pro-Moscow government, but they averred that Russia was backward in comparison to western countries. In response i couldn’t resist indicating two, almost identical, advertisements on the wall next to us. One was for Coca Cola, the other Pepsi; thus neatly illustrating what is sometimes meant by the word ‘variety’ in North American culture.

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