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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Karen Goes To The Banya

Wow! Are we ever glad to have a Russian made jeep! Recently we were asked to help transport 2 new drug rehabilitants to a center located 70 kilometers from the city. It was an adventure we will not soon forget.

Once we had crossed the Volga and passed beyond the city limits of Bor we drove for what seemed forever in uninhabited country. It had gotten dark out and as I (Karen) was cruising along through the falling snow and pine forest at about 50 MPH, suddenly, one of the guys in the back seat leans forward and barks, “Karen, stop! Stop!” We’d been traveling endlessly with almost no other signs of habitation and I couldn’t understand why I was to suddenly stop, but I did. Thank goodness. The paved road came to an abrupt end. How Ivan could tell we had reached that point in the trip I have no idea because as far as I could see there were no landmarks. Where the road ended, a 2 rut track into the forest began.

We bounced along for about 4 kilometers and there before us was a ravine, un-crossable except for some rickety wooden boards lying across a one lane bridge made of rotting logs with nothing on either side to keep our wheels from slipping off. We could only see the shaky boards in front of us and the darkness dropping off on either side of our car.

“Go, go forward!” Ivan told us. With my heart in my mouth, unable to even breathe, I let out the clutch and slowly rolled out onto this contraption totally convinced that we were going to die that night. Wonder of wonders, we made it across and yet all I could think about was that we were going to have to come back the same way.

Continuing along the dirt track we finally came to the rehabilitation center, a log home in a small village in the middle of nowhere. The only modern amenity in this place was electricity. They heated with wood, cooked with bottled propane and used an out house with no seat, just a hole in the floor, for the bathroom. Bathing was accomplished in - the BANYA!

When we arrived a big pot of soup was cooking so that we could all eat together and have some fellowship time. After supper we chatted and sang a few songs and then it was time for the Sunday evening banya, the traditional Russian steam bath. The girls asked me please to join them. There are times in the life of a missionary that you just can’t say no, however much your insides are screaming in rebellion. Though Michael has gone numerous times, I have never gone to a banya. All of my natural reserve, shyness, insecurity, call it what you want, made me go weak in the knees as I smiled and said, “thank you, I will.”

The girls got a towel and a robe for me and we changed into this before we went to the banya which is in a separate log hut, away from the house. It was about 30˚ outside with a dusting of snow on the ground and I was dressed only in a short sleeved, cotton summer bathrobe and rubber flip flops. We walked in the darkness for what seemed like a ¼ of a mile. I was shaking so hard from the cold I thought my bones would break out through my skin. We stepped through the door of the banya quickly so as to not let the heat out. Inside it was deliciously warm and moist and inviting, but I found out this was just the relaxing/cooling room.

The girls quickly shed what few garments they were wearing and I knew that I had to do the same. This was not a self confidence booster as I was with 2 buff, perky, 20’s something young women and ‘here comes the old granny.’

Off to the right was a half height door that we had to bend and go through in order to get into the steam room. Inside, the heat was intense and as I looked around this rough wooden room, lit by one dim bare bulb one of the girls threw a ladle full of water onto the rocks in an iron wood stove which was blazing away. The steam and atmosphere hit me like a physical assault. My lungs felt like they were seizing and I instantly started to sweat like I have never sweated in my whole life. Hot flashes are nothing compared to what I was experiencing. To make the experience more surreal, one of the girls started smacking herself with wet birch branches while the other girl started smacking me. This is to increase the health and longevity they explained and I wanted to ask them how this coincided with the fact that the average life span in Russia was under 60 years. But I didn’t.

We steamed and beat ourselves for about 10 minutes, threw ice water all over our bodies as I screamed in shock and then we went back out to the outer room to “cool off.” This process is repeated several times. At some point, someone from the house brought tea and left it in the outer room for us to enjoy during one of our cool-offs.

The girls were wishing that there was enough snow on the ground to go out and roll in, but I was gratefully and silently thanking God for the dry crusty grass that was everywhere. The last time through this process is when they actually use soap and shampoo and rinse off with buckets of warm water which just drains down through the floor boards. Then with a wet head and wrapped only in the cotton summer robe and flip flops we trooped back to the house to get fully dressed. After the extreme heat of the banya, the walk back felt delightfully cool and invigorating like a freshening breeze on a hot summer day. Before beginning the long drive home we drank more tea and sang a few more worship songs together.

Something tells me that before this winter is over, I may yet get my chance to “roll in the snow.”