Happy Siberian 2015!

Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, decked out for 2015.

Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, decked out for 2015. The central “avenue” you see is the terminus of an ice slide 75 yards behind me.

Happy 2015! We are getting close to the New Year here in Ulan-Ude, it is just over two hours away. I went out in -15 F to capture some of the festive Siberian spirit. I have photographed in colder, but I admit my fingers turned to bricks, and I had resort to sticking those ice bricks in my pants, I mean IN MY PANTS. You dance a bit, but you can warm up frozen photographer’s appendages fast!

Our Siberians are bundled in all types of fur, from reindeer hide boots, to sable coats and fox, rabbit or hats of mink. Ice is king during the New Year, and right this moment kiddies and their Moms and Pops alike are sliding down ice slides with shrieks of glee. The first round of celebratory fireworks have met their match so to speak, but there are numerous rounds to come. A Very Happy New Year to you, from us on the steppe! Next up, Christmas! Russia celebrates Christmas day on the seventh of January.

Fireworks bust over Lenin's head to cheer the hearts of the people.

Fireworks bust over Lenin’s head to cheer the hearts of the people.

2015 is the year of the goat. And that is who you see lit and enthroned in ice with the Opera theater in the background.

2015 is the year of the goat. And that is who you see lit and enthroned in ice with the Opera theater in the background.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/getting-seasonal/

Sushi with a Shaman

Shamans close heaven's gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

Shamans close heaven’s gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

I am getting phone calls from a shaman.

Actually, she is a shamaness. Newly initiated. We’re friendly. I met her about a week before her drumming in. The morning of our meeting, I briskly packed my camera in hopes of shooting the annual shamanic ritual called “Closing Heaven’s Gates”. The previous day, I spied an announcement about the rite taped to a window in the tram. Right then and there I knew, I was going to the shamans.

The mystique of shamans is legend here in Siberia. I am sure they prefer it that way, a little swirling mystery, the potential of tapping power inaccessible to most is good for business. Shamans get respect, even from those who do not believe, because deep down inside, we wonder if, or fear, or hope their power is real.

In an effort to sidestep all the myth surrounding shamans, all the dire warnings of religious prognosticators, I disengaged my worldview, my labels, and approached these men and women as, well . . . men and women.

After being delivered by bus to the East side supermarket, I started walking the quarter mile jaunt to the Shaman’s temple currently under construction. Striding the sandy roadside, rocking Coldplay’s latest, I was oblivious to all except the sun. Softly, surely, a poom-poom-poom swelled over the stereophonic sound pulsing through my ear tubes. Confused I plucked my headphones and stopped to run a system diagnostics of my sensory faculties. My ears had not betrayed. The air was alive with ricocheting drumbeats!

Quickening my pace, I cleared the squat, time darkened homesteads for my first view of the ritual. As if on the pages of a picture book, the scene opened upon a gentle decline into the Uda river. The city ascended the far bank; industrial, commercial, and residential belts scaled the uplands, who wore cedars for a crown. Clouds, like cotton ball exclamations rode powder skies. Banners, emblazoned with totem animals of Buryat tribes snapped on zephyrs. A crowd of all ages had placed their offerings of milk, vodka, sweets, and tea on a table, and now waited patiently for the shamans.

Photographing an event is one thing, understanding what you have witnessed quite another. While I photographed, I thought, “who can explain what I am witnessing?” That is how I found myself two weeks later searching for someone in a crowd, yelling through our phones at each other over the noise of celebration. On that Wednesday afternoon I needed two things: a quiet place to sit, and a translator of ceremonies, yes, someone to clue me in to what I had witnessed. The only option for peace from the blaring loudspeakers of another state sponsored holiday was a Japanese restaurant. Now I liked the sound of that. The only hitch was, Irina, shamaness of Shishkovka (region where I live), needed a lesson in chopsticks. So, with ninja dexterity, I oversaw Irina’s chopstick apprenticeship. Her apprenticeship accomplished, over fruit and chocolate “spring-rolls” and green tea, chopsticks flashing, she brought me up to speed.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven's gates.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven’s gates.

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

The ritual ground had been set up in a square, the Shamans perched shoulder to shoulder on stools like birds flocking a power line, beaks to the sun. Drumming they were, drumming, drumming. By and by the shamans rose to make their way East, South, West, and finally North. In each cardinal direction, a fire was kindled and an offering of tea and water flung heavenward. The shamans trooped clockwise from fire to fire, the crowd respectfully bringing up the rear; all this under the drum.

Around ten years ago, a woman, making her way to the Buddhist temple, felt compelled to exit the tram car on rundown and blustery Sverdlova street. Wandering down the street aimlessly, she halted before a severe building. Raising her eyes, she saw she had come to the offices of the Tengeri religious organization of shamans. She gasped in surprise, opened the door, and went in.

Her grandma, Shage had been a great shamaness of the Khongodor tribe. In 1966 Irina, girl of 18 or 19, dreamed of grandma. For three consecutive nights, Shage, delivered a message from beyond the veil. She reminded her grand daughter of her ancestral homeland near Kukunur lake, reminded her she was shaman-born, reminded her of obligations to help her progenitors and progeny alike. Here family history collided with the political reality of Soviet Russia. You might think that back corners of Siberia were places one might get away with “anti-soviet” behavior. Not among native communities, where word traveled by tongue at jet fighter speed. Memories of the thirties, when Shamans were labeled enemies of the state, were hunted down and murdered by zealous communist converts, remained branded in peoples psyches. During Soviet times, becoming a shaman was not something one did. And so after the pale of communist life had receded, in late middle age, Irina began pursuing the life of a Shamaness.

During the closing heaven’s gate ritual, one of the Shamans had made it known I had an all access pass, which I took full advantage of. And that is how I met Irina, who approached me to clarify. In my artistic exuberance, I had trespassed into territory exclusively reserved for spirits. Graciously she accepted my apology, we traded introductions, and phone numbers. And that is what lead to sushi with a shaman.

With directional prayers properly dispensed, the company collected within the angles of their sacred space. Now rocking on their dragon staffs, thrumming drums escort them into communion with their ancestors. After attuning their ears to the needs and advice of familial spirits, the sapphire clutch circumambulates a standing grove of recently cut birches. Spinning round, kicking up dust, they call to the 13 master-spirits who rule the Baikal basin. This is an invitation to the birch grove; a grove provided for the masters occupation.

In earnest then, they begin praying. Embroidery eyes gawk on heads in a confusion of flashing color. Forged amulets sound against polished discs and golden tiger bells. Other worldly, their appearance camouflages the voyage between worlds, faces extinguishing in black tassel. The tempo of drum beats quicken, quicken until they lurch up from stools burdened in trance. Hissing, they stalk stiffly about. Assistants and seekers of blessings both genuflect before the channeled presence. When a shaman delivers what blessings and messages the spirit had, she leaps up, up and again until the spirit takes leave. Spent, she sinks to a stool in the helping arms of other shamans.

The implements of a shaman rest for the moment.

The implements of a shaman rest, for the moment.

Bukha Noyon visits the people he protects.

Bukha Noyon, protector of the Buryat people, visits Ulan-Ude, capital of the Buryat people.

A shaman gets his trance on.

A shaman gets his trance on.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

A commotion of shamans, constantly releasing from or slipping into trance; that is what chaos repeating itself looks like. Numerous people temporarily throng about one or another shaman, punctuating the ebb and flow of ceremony, and disperse back into the encircled crowd. Finally this action metamorphoses into a throbbing shaman drum team congregated about the most experienced shamans who call the thirteen into themselves. Like a delirious sunbaked octopus desperately shuffling for the sea, the host shaman staggers under the presence of spirit. Spirits answer questions and bestow their blessings of health and welfare for the winter months. The last spirit to appear is Bukha Noyon, the head of the thirteen and the protector of the Buryat people. After he is properly honored and thanked, he goes back into the birch trees, and after the trees have been paraded around the sacred space where the people may honor which ever spirits they care too, the trees are burned along with a sheep slaughtered for the occasion. The eternal blue sky welcomes these spirits into their winter domiciles, and heaven’s gates close. After the sun’s hibernal rest, the shamans will reopen it in spring.

Earlier I stated that I wanted to interact with the shamans on a human level. My reasoning was, if I chose to see them first as shamans, my western scientific education would label them quacks, while my church upbringing would label them instruments of the devil. Both of these judgements seem unjust to make about people I have never met. But do you know what? Deep down, I confess, I still expected to meet conniving, drunken, shifty shamans. Imagine my surprise when instead, I met pleasant, gracious, smiling people! People I could shoot the breeze with over coffee. People who might be friends. People.

With this clear in my mind, it was so easy to set my agendas aside, and sit down with Irina to listen to her life. With nothing to prove or defend, I found it easy to laugh. I left that day knowing one soul on this earth better, my new friend, the shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

Meet Our Friends!

The girls get their game on.

The girls get their game on.

We would like to introduce you to some of our friends. Full of energy, imagination, and emotion, these kids are between three and six years old. When you hang out with them there is always drama. With the boys it’s mostly spider-drama, sticks-as-weapons drama, and monkey bars drama. With the girls, you’ve got hat drama, pay-attention-to-me drama, and that-is-my-candy drama. Discovery, new experiences, learning to trust, this all comes into play when we play. Fun! When we come to visit, we usually get mobbed, it’s part of the deal. After swinging multiple kiddies multiple times till way past dizzy, there still might be four or five kids literally hanging on you. And that’s all good, cause we know they need that kind of contact with people. They don’t get enough.

A happy birthday indeed!

Happy birthday indeed!

And you know what else? These kids are scarred. Some days a person wonders, “Does my time spent here make a difference?” “Can my little bit of love help them live? Not just survive, but truly live?” All these little pairs of eyes have seen really bad stuff. Stuff we never saw. Sometimes one of the children just needs a quiet hug. Those still moments are filled with a silent prayer that this child will find peace with our Creator. Honestly? I follow that prayer with another; that I will find peace with my Creator.

A lovely someones' daughter

A lovely someones’ daughter

Some days the kid who really needs some love and understanding wants none of it. In early May on a day we stayed indoors, I was spinning kids around in the air. I don’t recall exactly what Katya did, but I told her “No, you need to stop.” She was insistent, and told me she wouldn’t. Then, she got offended, and wouldn’t talk with me. For 2 months. She is 5. Yesterday she jumped in my arms and gave me a forgiving hug. I carried her around the playground on my shoulders. I felt like crying. It was sooooo nice to have the forgiveness of that little girl; it was so sad that a five-year old girl shut me out for two months. Ouch.

One day may all her un-cried tears be eternally expunged, may she shine brighter than a star. So be it.

We are part of a great group of volunteers who visit one of the orphanages in Ulan-Ude.  Not only do we take the kids out to help them blow off steam, we host birthday parties for them, we pray for them, sometimes we put on plays for them, sometimes we teach them things, we help with particular concerns like collecting money for kids who need special medical attention, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. (Yule Brennar, The King and I.)

The sunny disposition of the Sundance kid.

A sunny disposition on the Sundance kid.

All of this is well and good. And yet, if these children don’t find families, their future is dark. With that in mind, together with the director of one of our local orphanages we will host a meeting where interested Russian families can come to learn about adoption. The director will explain the realities of adopting a child, what to expect, where to go, and help them consider if adoption is an option. Historically adoption has been rare among Russian families. But that is changing. Healthy Russian families adopting Russian orphans. That sounds like a fabulous thing to us!

Pretty in pink.

Pretty in pink.

Orphans in Russia: The Facts

Number of children declared to be without families in 2012: 74,724*

Number of children in Foster care in 2012: 516,592*

Number of children in Orphanages: 104,028*

Number of children in boarding schools: 18,323*

61,400 children were either adopted or placed in foster care in 2012*

Of those,

6,500 were adopted by Russian families⁁

2,600 were adopted by foreign families⁁

52,500 placed in foster care of some sort⁁

Put another way, in 2011 there were 25 (25.19) orphans for every thousand children in Russia.‡

Repeat Orphans

A particularly concerning trend is repeat orphans. That is children who have been returned to the orphanage after being adopted, or placed in foster homes. Finding up to date information on this is difficult, here is what I could find:

In 2007, 6,100 children were returned by Russian families.†

In 2009 8,400 children were returned by Russian families, 1 by foreign families†

In 2011 6,300†

If these numbers hold then it is safe to say that most of the children adopted by Russian families end up as repeat orphans. Yikes.

Our goal is to see that change!

*Facts taken from the site of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. (usynovite.ru/statistics/2012/1/ and usynovite.ru/statistics/2012/2/)

⁁ Facts taken from the Russian wikipedia site here: ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Усыновление#cite_note-st2009-49 (They site the Ministry of Education and Science for their information.)

‡Taken from a report on the “State of the Solution to the problem of Orphanhood” 2011 found at: donorsforum.ru/materials/analitika-po-sirotstvu-v-rossii/

†From an article dated 25 Jan 2013 entitled “Federation Council Decides Who Will be Responsible for Control of Foster Families” by Alyona Sivkova, Izvestia (izestia.ru/news/543654)

Flourishing Flowers, Flowering Fountains

Flowers and Fountains! Finally. FINALLY! F-I-N-A-L-L-Y!!! When fountains flower and flowers flourish then Lazurus-Spring has finally chased the Queen of Winter from her Siberian throne. Pink Rhododendron have burst into the sleeping grey forest, jolting a sleeping winter heart into beating-beating blood red LIFE! Blazing blossoms of fuchsia shatter the Siberian paradigm and make the quiet of the forest so loud. And the fountains! A ballet of water washes through the souls of city dwellers. Under protection of a fountain, toddlers squeal at new sensations, children splash, skate, gawk, and dash. Youth cuddle, parents chat and tend the young ones, and the elderly rest, enjoying the water show, complete with music and light. Fountains create refuges in the rush of Russian cities. Fountains and flowers transform Siberia!

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Hotcake Hustle: Maslenitsa

Circling revelers revel at the culmination of "Butter Week".

Circling revelers revel at the culmination of “Butter Week”.

DO bears walk the streets of Siberia?

DO bears walk the streets of Siberia?

Maslenitsa, Maslenitsa! Have you been to Maslenitsa? If only for the love of pancakes (blini – something like a cross between a hearty American flapjack and a delicate French crepe) you should kick up your heels at Maslenitsa. Possibly translated as “Butter Week”, Maslenitsa is a festival that falls prior to lent and an official kick in Winter’s pants on her way out Russia’s door. Granted, Spring is still only a dearly guarded hope in the hearts of a frozen people who collectively seem perfectly pleased to shiver in the cold Siberian wind just for the chance to kiss Winter goodbye. Well, that and to strip down to their underoos and scale a gaily ribboned wooden pole for prizes tied on top, cheer on pancake relays, engage in some old fashioned tug o’ war (even Grandmas got in on that fun), watch Cossack sword dances, strain at lifting 30 kilo weights before a cheering crowd, scarf blini and condensed milk (a treat that makes Russians moan in ecstasy, really I have seen it!), mount a balance beam to take shots at each other with weighted gunny sacks, and finally burn lady Maslenitsa in effigy! This is a decidedly Russian experience.

Think you can handle the ladies? They don't mess around.

Think you can handle the ladies? They don’t mess around.

Not only do they race their pancakes . . .

Not only do they race their pancakes but . . .

You flip your flapjack while you scamper.

If you drop that 30 kg weight on your head? You are out till next Maslenitsa.

If you drop that 30 kg weight on your head? You are out till next Maslenitsa.

These bunnies are FIRED UP to be here!

These bunnies are FIRED UP to be here!

Historically the roots of Maslenitsa are pagan, but Orthodox influence has changed it enough for it to become an steaming, eclectic mix of pagan and Orthodox Christian tradition. A week long event, nowadays Sunday, the last day of the festival is when Russians come out in force. Sunday is known as “Forgiveness Day”

Ahhh, the sweet sweet sounds of saber dancing.

Ahhh, the sweet sweet sounds of saber dancing.

Dancing with 3 and a half feet of sharp spinning steel? Man, that is EASY!

Dancing with 3 and a half feet of sharp spinning steel? Man, that is EASY!

The Cossacks came to Buryatia, and now we have Buryat Cossacks.

The Cossacks came to Buryatia, and now we have Buryat Cossacks.

Kickin' it Cossack style!

Kickin’ it Cossack style!

The weapons that won the East.

The weapons that won the East.

On Forgiveness Day, I made my way to the Ethnographical Museum of Ulan-Ude. Full of festive ardor, people streamed into the festivities between cars packed into the turn off to the museum. Smiles and laughter flitted through the crowds, making otherwise reserved spirits bright. The continuous creek of people flowing toward the celebration site encountered a menagerie of humanity dressed as bears, goats, fools, musicians, bunnies, and people in traditional Russian or Cossack dress. The milling crowds attended to different cultural ensemble’s dances and songs, played traditional games and cheered on participants in the strong man contest. My favorite group was the six and seven year old white clad bunnies whose fuzzy ears rivaled the snow in brightness. They didn’t seem sure they were in the right place, but there hopping, carrot wielding antics warmed my cold heart. The turn toed Cossack dance avec swirling saber captured my wonder. Cossacks always cut striking figures. I was pleased that they were dancing, smoking and laughing rather than chasing me down whip and sword. When the song and dance no longer kindled my bones, I shivered my way over to the culinary promenade. Flinging everything I could at my chills, hot pozi, hot tea, hot blini, my body temperature rose to lukewarm.

Crazy Russians scrumming for pole position.

Crazy Russians scrumming for pole position.

This fella is bold, cause it was COOOOLD!

This fella is bold, cause it was COOOOLD!

He topped out through naked determination.

He topped out through naked determination.

The slivers are worth it if the prize is.

The slivers are worth it if the prize is.

Stumbling toward the “maypole” I contemplated collective chaos as a scrum of young men climbed over/on one another at the pole’s base. After a scrabbling struggle, some ascendant fellow would begin inching his way top-ward giving out somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way up. And the climbing scrum scrabbled again vying for pole position. After several prizes swinging from the top had been hard claimed the last successful pole crawl was completed by a champion in briefs. The crowd stepped back in respect upon seeing his literally naked determination. Unfazed by a future certain of sliver picking his birthday suit, this Vanya made fast work of the nearly unconquerable pole to claim his prize. He descended to hearty cheers for his audacity.

Lady Maslenitsa being carried to her demise.

Lady Maslenitsa being carried to her demise.

The afternoon was waning and Maslenitsa had yet to be burned. A procession bearing the effigy made its way through the crowd to install the colorfully garbed paper maiden on her funeral pyre.

Adios to winter! Even if it remains another month.

Adios to winter! Even if it remains another month.

Doused in kerosine she stood unknowing and serene, dripping flammable. The fire dancers circled spinning their torches ever nearer the gassed maiden until . . . smoke and fire inflamed her pyre. I ran ahead of everyone making for the gates to the warm transport waiting to carry revelers back to the city.