The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.

Letters from Russia

Justin Allaman-Rozetta a Special for The Quill

I found myself in Russia thanks to my friend William, who is currently receiving nurse care 24/7 in the Russian city of Syktyvkar. During our first couple day in Russia we visited William, paid a visit to a church in the city, and slept off our jet lag.

After leaving the city, we drove three very bumpy hours to the remote village of Greva, which is where my friend William has lived for the last four years. After picking up the key, we let ourselves in and got all set up to stay for a week. It was somewhat eerie entering an abandoned house and sifting through someone's belongings, yet we had just seen the (ill) homeowner the day prior.

The house had electricity but no running water. The bathroom was an outdoor privy. Like all houses in the village, it was heated by a wood stove. Forest stretched across the horizon in all directions, so many of the houses were constructed out of whole logs with swamp moss jammed in the chinks. In front of William's house was a volleyball net, in the back a merry-go-round and swings.

From the very moment we moved into William's house, we had children of the village clinging to us and asking to play with us. You could tell they loved William and missed him dearly. The inside of William's house was covered with drawings the kids had made for him and hung up. As we were still unloading our belongings two girls (of their own initiative) grabbed brooms and began sweeping William's floor.

During our time in Greva, it became apparent William was something of a local celebrity. Everywhere we went (the hardware store, the school, the police station) people asked about William and his health condition. While we were in Greva we helped people the way William did: we split firewood, helped a man build a fence, and trimmed grass at the school. Just like in America, there are the haves and the have nots. Some families had enough money to own more than one car, while others weren't as well off and were appreciative of the help. In addition to helping people physically, we visited some Christians that lived in other remote villages that didn't have a nearby church.

After a week in Greva, we drove back to Syktyvkar briefly and then drove another three hours to the village of Don, where William had started a church before moving to Greva. It was there that my friend Andre talked me into taking a banya. Which, in plain terms, means a sweat bath. The conversation went something like this:

 So Justin, are you ready for your first banya experience?

 Well to be honest, Andre, I'm kind of terrified and disgusted by the idea. Sitting and sweating does not sound like fun or like a good way to get clean.

 You won't spend your whole time sweating. That's just in the sweat room where you'll be first. It's the most hot, maybe 70 degrees Celsius or so. Let's see, that's what, like something around 150 degrees Fahrenheit? And if you want it hotter there's a ladle of water you can dump on the steam rocks. The sweat room is the first part of the banya.

     Oh my gosh, Andre, you're trying to kill me!

 Well the locals love banyas. In fact, even though some families have a working shower in their house, they still prefer to banya. Anyway, after you have sweat adequately, you go into the washroom, where you can dump cooler or scalding water on yourself and scrub up with soap.

 I can do that in the shower.

 The locals say you can't sweat enough in a shower, that's why they prefer banyas. It opens the pores more. And then there's the birch branch bundles. You use those while you're in the sweat room to hit your body to help your pores.

 Is there WiFi in the banya by any chance?

 WiFi? Um, no, no WiFi. That's why you don't usually banya by yourself. It can be kind of boring.

 You mean people banya together? Oh yes, its kind of like being in the locker room of the YMCA. You strip off and sit in the sweat room naked with other men from your community talking about the weather, politics& you know.

  Sounds& .delightful. I guess they can help spank you with the birch branches.

 So it's not actually a spanking, it's more of just a pat, and you do it all over your body.

 How long to I have to sit in the sweat room spanking (I mean patting) myself with birch branches before I can go into the washroom and lather up with soap?

 Well I can't really answer that; it's just whatever feels right. It's an art you know. If I were to tell you seven minutes, you might pass out by then. But if I tell you 15 minutes and you're not a heavy sweater, it might be too early. Just don't sit and sweat too long. A banya is a beautiful thing& but it can also be dangerous. People have died from passing out and people couldn't get to them because they were locked out.

 And you say my Russian experience will be incomplete until I have done this?

 Yep. So after you've washed yourself and rinsed yourself with more water in the washroom, you can return to the sweat room if you'd like another session. I know people that don't consider it a good banya experience unless they've gone two or three times in the sweat room.

 Really? That sounds awful.

  You'll like it, trust me.

By the end of the trip, Andre had turned me into a believer in the banya.