Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Russian with a Filipino Heart

Tick encephalitis, Lyme disease, Hepatitis A, etc.- these are some of the diseases one might acquire when traveling to Siberia, and as a doctor I was a little apprehensive at first.  The Lonely Planet guidebook which I read thoroughly gave these warnings.  Should I really go? I think I shouldn't.  But, this is a one in a lifetime experience.  

Good that this book also mentioned a contact person- Petr Ishkin, a well-traveled Russian teacher who is proficient in English.  So I tried to email him, expecting he would never answer. He must receive hundreds of these requests, why would we bother to respond to mine?  I was requesting him to accompany and guide me through this Siberian rendezvous which brought me from island of Cebu, Philippines to Seoul, Korea, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia then to Ulan-ude, Siberia.  I was quite surprised  when he answered back the next day. After this, we were regularly exchanging emails and then we became Facebook friends.  I learned he spoke  more than five languages and has traveled extensively,  to almost all the continents. I introduced him to my frantic wife, Grace, who from day one, was uncomfortable with my travel plans. Petr offered so much help from choosing the hotel to my visa applications and advised on where to go and what to visit.  Once my wife got to know him, she changed her mind, and  half heartedly supported my planned side trip to Siberia.

Upon arrival at the airport in Ulan-ude, I was greeted by a smiling Russian- "Hello, Vicente", I immediately recognized him from the Facebook pics and in a second, all my apprehensions were gone.  "I'm so happy to see you Petr", I said.  He introduced me to his companion and fellow teacher, Anatoly, who was very quiet at first. Most Russians I know, especially tourists in our city in the Philippines are stoic and not too friendly.  "Smiling is a sign of weakness for us.  Initiative is punishable", he quipped. What a difference from our part of the world, where smiling is a natural gesture and shows respect and hospitality.  But this is their culture and character - it is who they are.  Maybe because they are colonizers. they feel subservient to no one

The next day, Petr guided me through the city in his own car and took me to museums, churches, theaters, temples, the mountains and even arranged  my trip to Lake Baikal for the next day.  Lake Baikal was wonderful and I felt "peace" while I was standing on its powdery aureate shores. He introduced me to several wonderful people- his co-teachers, his school head, his wife, his friend Gongor and even invited me to talk to some of his students in the Lyceum for the Gifted about my country.  He even invited me to his home for lunch with his charming wife were I had a taste of the Omul- a freshwater salmonid endemic to Lake Baikal and the cranberry-strawberry juice concoction, which he made himself.  I learned so much from him about the Russians, the Buryats, Buddhism, Geser, Orthodox churches, the Datsuns and about life in general.  He was a funny, witty, patient and truly knowledgeable.

My three days stay in Siberia felt short, especially that I was having a blast.  Petr drove me to the airport and escorted me to the departure area.  He never left my side until the flight was confirmed and I was ready to go.  It was a long wait at the airport before boarding, and sensing that he was tired, told him, "You can go Petr, I'm okay here".  "No", he said, "I wanna make sure that I see you leave coz you might be calling back to inform me you haven't left due to some unforeseen circumstance."  How much do I owe you for this trip? He just smiled and wished me a pleasant journey.

In this wonderful city of Ulan Ude, I didn't only find the perfect guide, I found a friend.