Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cheers! To Cognac for Breakfast...and Banyas for Everyone!

All right, so time is tight and I'm not sure how much I'm gonna be able to jot down here, but better a little than nothing at all I figure. Bear with me if I've repeated some of what Alison may have blogged about already at:

Before arriving in the more northern city of Perm where Alison and I have been for the last few days, we spent a bit of time getting our feet wet in Moscow, a city filled with under-dressed fashionistas and over-priced lattes, elaborately decorated metro stations and poorly-maintained streets, austere Soviet monuments and sparkling Tsarist gems. It's the kind of city where you can sleep till noon and sit down to breakfast begun with three shots of Cognac--which is exactly what we did the first morning!

We had the pleasure of staying with a host family right in downtown Moscow and were treated to a lovely breakfast after waking up around noon the first morning. But breakfast could not begin without toasting all our families...ahh, cognac on an empty stomach! Top that off with Russian-style cucumber & tomato salad, dumpling-like goodness, coffee and icecream. Oh, and we'd just taken Robaxacet an hour earlier to ease our sore muscles...nice combo there: relaxant, stimulant, and depressant, pretty magical I'd say.

Another classic highlight which no traveller to Moscow should miss is Red Square...which we wound up at no less than four separate times. These all include long and ridiculous stories, but from our first steps through the North gates with a view of the sun reflecting off the golden onion domes of the colourful and iconic St. Basil's Cathedral, to our solemn circuit around the decades-dead embalmed body of Lenin, we soaked up every minute of our time there. Each trip to the infamous square provided different experiences and photo ops, but when our hostess asked us each night where we'd visited, we were rather shy about telling her that we'd visited Red Square AGAIN. I think she was quite bewildered by the fact that we'd taken about 100 photos of ourselves jumping, making faces, and posing in front of St. Basil's, and was just as befuddled when she happened to see a bunch (no let me rephrase that: ALL) of Alison's photos featuring funny signs, odd sights, and general Muscovite kitsch. We had a blast, however, and our host family really blessed us with some great meals and fun conversation (most of which had to be translated into English for Yours Truly).

If there's another classic Russian tradition one should experience (besides viewing the world's most famous mummy) it's getting cleaned up at the Banya. Now for those of you who frequented my blog while I was writing from Morocco a couple years ago, you may remember my story about visiting the hammam--where I was lathered up and scrubbed silly while lying flat with my face pressed against the hot tile floors. It was humourous, it was overwhelming, it was above all, the cleanest I have EVER BEEN. And I went back for more. Since then I've developed this hankering to visit women's bathhouses the world over, and stories of Russia's famous banyas wouldn't suffice--I had to go.

Now Alison and I were conveniently staying right across the street from Moscow's premier Banya: the Sanduny Baths. Being budget travelers we chose the cheapest bathing option, which included a couple hours of access to the most basic services. Within a few minutes of emptying rubles from our pockets we were both handed head towels (we shrugged thinking we really didn't need one...) and directed to a lovely leather sectional where we could undress and store our things. We giggled as we stared wide-eyed at the opulent dressing room. Women lounged in various states of undress primping, socialising, and--get this--EATING. You could either order meals or bring in your own, plunk yourself down in a big, brown leather booth and chow down on a sandwich in the buff! I wasn't sure whether to think the system ingenious or just unhygenic...probably some mixture of both!

Alison and I proceeded to prep ourselves to enter the actual washing facilities and swung the doors open into a large tile and marble-encrusted bathroom. That's what it was, a giant bathroom with a row of open shower stalls with marble plinths just outside each one where bathers could set up their toiletries, a series of marble benches to relax upon, a smallish pool of neck-high cold water, and two mysterious wooden tubs full of water with ladders leading up to the edge. Oh and of course there were small broom-like tools consisting of birch branches which are typically used to beat bathers with. We didn't pay to have a Venik beat the tar out of us because it just wasn't in our budget, but we're definitely planning on doing so the next chance we get to try out a less expensive banya!

And then there was one more door. The door to The Sauna. The sauna is apparently whole core of the banya experience, and upon entry I promptly exited and reconsidered this whole banya deal. The only way I was going into a room that freaking hot was with a massive bottle of water by my side. The second time I swung the door open, this time with a bathtowel in one hand and a litre of water in the other, the lady in charge of heating the sauna shot me a sour look. Apparently I was letting the cool air in. I took a couple of steps forward and cried out as a blast of heat smacked my face, everyone including Alison who'd climbed the short flight of stairs up to the second level, called up to me to come quickly through the heat. I pressed through the heat and found myself herded into the fold of women and kneeling down on the slats above the first level, breathing cooler air from below. Everyone cleared a small space for me and helped me lay out my towel. I glanced around and when I noticed that each woman had their head covered in order to protect themselves from the heat, I was grateful for the extra 30 rubles I'd paid for a head towel.

So there I lay naked as a jaybird surrounded by a dozen other women all sporting their birthday suits, breathing in the thick, muggy air with ease while I inhaled as deeply and loudly as I possibly could, scared that my lungs wouldn't be able to reserve enough oxygen for me to survive on! It's amazing how quickly you forget about your nakedness when breathing becomes so important! Every minute or so I sipped water, which incidentally happened to be carbonated and exploded the second I twisted off the cap right in the middle of the sauna. I felt pretty classy at that point. Oh, and when Alison and I tried to chat we were talking in the sauna. After five minutes I could hardly stand it anymore: my knees were bent and therefore burning as they were higher than my body, I could chew the air but barely swallow it, and the no-talking rule had me bored out of my tree. Crawling over the mass of bodies I descended the stairs and pretty much felt my face peel off as I forced my way through the heat shield I initially panicked about. I had entered the sauna dry as sand and left after only minutes soaked to the bone. Awaiting me as I exited the torture chamber were the two mysterious tubs of water, and it was ever so clear as to what their purpose was in the moment I burst forth into the bathing room.

I'm sure all of you are very aware of how much I despise cold unless it comes in the form of ice cubes in my glass, but I'm telling you that I clambered up the rungs of that ladder so fast and dunked myself into that pool so eagerly that even I was shocked at how wonderful it felt to be COLD! The rest of the bathing experience paled in comparison to the sheer delight I experienced in that little wooden tub!

And I'm terribly sorry but that's where I'm going to have to end on this edition of the TSR adventures. So much more has happened since then which I'll update you on later. There've been many touching experiences with people we've met along the way, and opportunities to share God's love have continually presented themselves. We are currently in Perm where we're experiencing a reprieve from the hot, muggy climate of Moscow, but will be returning to the heat (yea!) in a few days when we hop on a train and ride three days further into the heart of Russia--Siberia!!! Unless I have the unlikely pleasure of writing you from the YWAM base outside of Perm where we're headed tonight, I most likely won't be blogging for the next week, but there'll be plenty to share once I arrive in Irkutsk and the land of Lake Baikal!

Thanks for tagging along!


  1. So funny! Probably the best description I've seen of a North American's first experience with a Russian banya. You make me smile, Jaime!

    Praying for you two as you make your way through my beloved Russia.


  2. I three days i'll be closer to you than anyone else back home...crazy. sounds like you're having an amazing time. what's your skype id?

  3. Dear Jaime,

    I wish I could have gone to the banya too! I've been thinking about both you and Alison a lot lately. I'm glad to read that the rest of your trip went well- and oh can I EVER identify with T on you alphabet list! I'm really glad I got to meet you!



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