Last time we spoke, I was in the front of a Kazan café, staring out over the city and pondering humanity’s cyclical nature. About three hours later, I was on the floor of a noodle shop, the manager administering smelling salts and bringing me back to consciousness. It seems I’d caught a bug, and I blacked out, fell, landed hard enough that that restaurant staff later told me that my head bounced at least a foot on impact.
There are better places to encounter sudden illness than an unfamiliar town in the middle of a Trans Siberian Railway trick. But there are worse, too, as it turns out. Sam, the name the restaurant manager gave me—and I name him here because he deserves every bit of credit I can send his way—was incredibly kind and attentive during my sudden illness. There were paramedics involved, some tile flooring needed to be mopped—it was just a gross situation on multiple levels. But Sam was a friend through it and a help. When I felt good enough to leave, he even walked a block with me to make sure I was really okay.
Sometimes, I open Web pages, and I simply can’t recognize the version of humanity that happens there, as opposed to the version that happens in real life, with hurt and laughter and projectile vomiting. I could do without that last element, but otherwise, real life wins, always.
My next stop, after an 18-hour train ride, was Yekaterinburg. This was a disappointing juncture of the trip for me. There were a lot of exciting, interesting things I wanted to do there, but the bug and general tiredness limited me. In the end, I got to do about a third of what I’d planned, and most of my activity focused around the city center. It was unfortunate to have to sacrifice part of the trip for advanced napping metrics, but the downfall of that whole real life versus digital thing is that real life comes with a frail body that gets tired and broken.
Speaking of broken, I just spent an hour on Skype, feeding information through my mother so she could talk to a bank agent about some nonsense with a questionable credit card charge. I’ve called the bank’s international assistance office several times in the past and with nice results, but today the number wouldn’t dial through. Sometimes, people ask what I get out of traveling aside from some new friends and cool pictures. First, I’d say that new friends and cool pictures (plus interesting food) are reason enough. But in terms of higher-order gains? You learn flexibility, innovation, and agility. You learn how to solve problems when channels one, two, and three are down but you still need a result. You learn to ask for help, to trust, and sometimes, to just sit there for a moment and take a deep breath and gather yourself, understanding that things will get better and that they could certainly be far worse.
And you learn to be optimistic.
The world, after all, feels like it’s crashing down around us sometimes. But as lousy as it feels to get sick, moments of vulnerability are sometimes the instants in which out eyes are open widest. This week, while my vulnerability was great, an Asian immigrant in an Islamic city deep in the heart of Russia stood by the side of a sick, suffering tourist from Middle America until he was certain everything was okay. That’s the kind of moment that permanently disables a person’s ability to hate, and it’s a sort of moment more people should encounter. That’s what I get out of traveling.
In the latter half of the week, I had the chance to fly to Moscow for the Fulbright Program’s Mid-Year Seminar and Conference. The exciting part of that opportunity was a chance to listen to other Fulbright scholars, specialists, and students presenting about their own research and experiences. Colleagues across the country are working on important issues like sexual health and curbing Russia’s AIDS epidemic; memorializing and recording experiences of victims of political oppression; studying the growth and efficiency patterns of a series of interconnected single-industry cities spread across Poland, Russia, and Ukraine; and examining the ways in which a burgeoning Soviet state determined what art was and how the idea would be incorporated into the (literal) fabric of a developing society and economy. It was invigorating and exciting to hear what these researchers are doing, and the inspirational ways in which they’re partnering with Russian scholars, groups, and individuals in order to create mutual understanding and to share knowledge and resources. It was a powerful way to start the second half of my grant year.
Fulbright Disclaiming: The views reflected in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.