Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bashkirs, Marshrutkas, and other things

Yesterday's bureaucratic nightmare kind of overshadowed the events of the previous week, so let's back up in time to something more interesting...starting with last Friday.

For the most part, even though I have lived in Chelyabinsk for seven months, I rarely see outside of the Center or Soviet regions... which is where I work and where I live, respectively. Chelyabinsk is a huge city, but area-wise, I really only see a small fraction of it. For those who know the city, I live close to the train station, so you can generally only find me from the train station to Park Gagarin to sometimes just past bank of the Miass. Outside of this district, I hardly ever go...and most people have told me that I don't need to.
My friend Zhenya lives a few bus stops beyond the Miass river, but it's still basically the city center.
Anyways, with this kind of limitation, it is easy to get into a "comfort zone" with transportation. I almost always take either the Bus #64, or the Trolley-bus #1. They are sometimes slow, but safe, reliable, and predictable nevertheless. Occasionally I will take Bus #18 or Marshrutka #64.

Маршрутки are a purely Russian... transportation experience that I know I will start to miss once I get back to the US. A marshrutka, or marshrutnoye taksi, is translated as "route taxi." When talking about them in English, I prefer to just use the Russian word because to Americans, "route taxi" doesn't really make sense, because we don't have them. Basically, a marshrutka is like a carpool bus/van. The main difference between a marshrutka and a bus is that it only stops when someone flags it down, or when someone asks for it to stop. They are smaller, usually yellow, and full of people you have to climb over to pay your fifteen rubles and exit on time. You also have to make sure to yell loud enough to stop on time, that is, if you can see out the window and know when is your stop. This is also assuming the driver speaks intelligible Russian.
Sometimes, marshrutkas changes routes without warning. So you always have to ask the driver if they are actually going to the place where the outside of the van says they are going.
This all being said, marshrutkas are generally the fastest way of getting around.

Anyways, last Friday, I finally got to see other parts of the city. A friend named Dasha invited me as a guest to her place, and told me which marshrutka to take to her place, but this marshrutka would be if I was coming from home. I was not, so I asked people I work with how to get there. They told me to take Marshrutka #4... but this marshrutka decided to go in a completely different direction... not to my friend's place, but to the Metal District!
NOW I have seen "Суровый Челябинск". We've got factories, all right. From there I took two different marshrutkas and finally reached my friend.
After a good dinner and martinis and card games, we decided to take a ride around town, including past the stadium where our first-place hockey team TRAKTOR competes.

The one region where I have never ended up is Leninsky. It is actually not that far in distance from where I live. It is on the other side of the train station, over a bridge of some kind. Apparently, it is a different world. I am always told to avoid Leninsky region, that it is where the hooligans lurk. I'm curious, but I know I probably shouldn't.

Now about even before that... a recap of our amazing Bashkir weekend!
The main purpose of the return to Ufa was for the conference, which took place on Friday. About sixteen of us reached Cathy at Bashkir State Pedagogical University and gave a speech about some topic related to America... mine was about health and fitness (thus, disproving the stereotype that all Americans are fat).
We were all accommodated by volunteer host families. My host was a Bashkir woman named Aliya, who was (as to be expected) wonderfully hospitable. She was unfortunately feeling down with a cold, and I felt kind of guilty at times, for example, when she woke up extra early to fix me breakfast. I had hoped to sneak out and not disturb her. It was wonderful talking with her though, and she really wanted to practice some of her English with me.
The person who originally wanted to host me was a Bashkir character named Salavat. He was a funny kid... that's all I can say.

At one of the events, I met an Iranian girl named Zahra who was studying art. This was one of those chance meetings, where I wasn't sure whether I should bother to make a fool of myself and say something to her in broken Farsi, but in the end, she was very impressed, and we continued to hang out. Hopefully she can visit sometime.

Yet another new friend from this trip was Valeria, from Almetyevsk. I thought she was just Russian, but she is originally from Central Asia. Her English was impressive, and it was great to have her along with us. If she wants to, we think she could definitely have a good chance to study in the US.

The best part about the Bashkir Bash, was the overnight weekend in the domik. I had kind of assumed that this "cottage" would be like the one I went to in Taganai, with an outhouse and a wood stove we heat ourselves (in other words, freezing cold). On the contrary, this was one high-class domik. Two floors, many rooms, a refrigerator, two bathrooms, hot water, the works.. and even a cellar that apparently has no dead body in it (inside joke). Our night was full of laughter, massages, songs, various languages, beer, and shashliks. Everything but sleep, obviously.

Probably the second best part was the Bashkir-language play we watched the next day back in Ufa. I find it cliche and low-brow to use the word "adorable" to describe something that is foreign to you... but in all seriousness, it was. We had the option to listen to a Russian translation headset, but it kind of distracted from the actual play. It was so lively and upbeat, and from what I gather, had a very feel-good ending. Bashkir music is also such. The story line was something along the lines of a young girl from the village is the object of affection of a rich, out-of-place man from the city, she doesn't really like him at first, she would rather stay in the village and gaze at the stars... in the end he builds an airplane for the girl and her father so they can go up into the sky and be closer to the sky. I believe they marry in the end. Cute))) And in Bashkir, of course.

Anyways, that's all for now. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How to handle Russian Bureaucracy with poise sand success

1. Dress nicely.
Seriously, it will put you in the mindset that you are going to conquer all, handle any curveballs, take on the world.
2. Never ever ever ever go to any "migration services" (unless it's a neatly organized International Department in a university) alone. Always go with someone you feel comfortable with and trust.
3. Do everything and say everything the person you most trust tells you to.
4. Be competent in the language, but not over-confident. Leave room for a "margin of error", and don't feel like you can argue and/or talk-back to people in Russian. Leave that for the person who accompanies you to handle.
5. Bring cash.
6. Be extra polite to everything. Act as if formulating your documents is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever done for you.
7. When asking questions, make sure you ask the RIGHT questions. Meaning, make sure that everything is 100% clear. Never ask questions about unnecessary information (not related to what bureaucrats are asking for). If you do this, you might dig yourself into a bigger hole, i.e, if you uncover an issue, a bureaucrat might ask more questions about it.
8. Keep in mind, these people most likely have boring, tedious lives. It's better to be hassled by a bureaucrat than actually BE a bureaucrat.
9. NEVER assume any bureaucratic process to be based on logic or common sense.
10. It's always good to have friends. Even friends of friends of friends in higher places.
11. Read up on the laws, requirements, and processes, so you can know if such a cost or document is actually necessary or not. Realize, that sometimes people say things to scare you. Their work is BORING. Some people will scare you because it makes their work more interesting. But then, you come across the rare bureaucrat that actually realizes that helping someone out of a difficult situation is more fulfilling than scaring them :)