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Fishing, Fires and Toast - 9/13/05


The fishing party

"We are going fishing tonight," said Yanzhima. "Dr. Peter wants to take you to a special place. We catch fish and have a picnic. We leave at seven. Dr. Zoua Samaeva, director of the hospital, will come."

Promptly at 7:00 Slava pulled up in the green Russian made Yuz - 452 4X4 four cylinder hospital emergency van. In it were Dr. Samaeva, a large vibrant, passionate and energetic woman; Dr. Peter, a very slight and intense person; Nina, Dr. Samaeva's secretary - relatively tall for a Buryat and decked out in high heals and bellbottom jeans; Danzan, a quiet young man who is a hospital technician, and Svetlana, the translator, who taught French in the high school, and was just learning English. She was fairly adept at translating Russian into English, but not so accomplished the other way around. Dr. Ardan, Yanzhima and I piled in. I could see three rods and one plastic bag and knapsack each with fishing gear - and cases of food, vodka bottles, pots, pans, plates and other picnic items. The sky was overcast and a light rain was coming down.

Slava and Naj fishing.

We were off on the A-1 Highway, a rugged one-lane road needing four-wheel drive that forged streams, paralleled and eventually crossed the main river, and looped over a ridge (passing one sacred site), coming back to the river near a grove of trees. A Russian "Jeep" was already there. We met two fishermen ending a successful day, albeit with a bucket of seemingly petite fish. We had come to a junction where a small steam entered the main channel creating a large eddy and pool. Across a large cliff plunged straight down into the river while its top rose up disappearing into the mist.

The fishing gear was similar to that I had used on Lake Baikal, stiff poles up to 18 feet in length and about an inch in diameter at the base. The reel was approximately six inches across giving the appearance of a light open narrow basket. The reel had no brake, drag or ratchet - it was freewheeling and thus spun easily. The rig was similar to those used on Baikal. Two to three foot-long lines were attached at eighteen-inch intervals to a four to five foot leader. Each short line held a wet fly. At the end of the leader was a relatively heavy bobbin or float. You haul back on the pole with two hands and whip it out sling-shot fashion hurling the leader, float and flies fairly far out into the river with none of the fly fishing finesse I've seen rabid anglers spending hours perfecting and more discussing. Imagine surf casting on the Ausable. The angler then holds up the tip and reels in line watching the bobbin for evidence of any potential strikes.

Slava, using the full rig mentioned, was soon catching fish. Dr. Peter, using a modified sawed off version, was getting not a bite, although clearly he was quite practiced at playing his line of flies. Nina, tired of standing in the rain watching these two fish, clambered down the steep rock-filled bank, an amazing feat in high heals balancing on wet rounded river stones, and bullied Slava's rig out of his hands. Soon she too was bringing them in. Dr. Peter, had yet to get even a strike.

None of the fish taken from the swift current would be considered sporting or legal by our standards. I referred to them as bait and was surprised that they kept all they caught.

"Good eating," said Slava.

Slava with catch.

After a half hour Dr. Peter's esteem had broken down to such a degree that he checked to see what flies Slava and Nina were using; to his dismay they were the same as his. Meanwhile they had taken in so many fish that Slava allowed me to try three casts. Then he wrestled the pole away from me and was back at it. Dr. Peter, my host, never once set me up on his extra pole too consumed by his effort to catch a fish. He finally did, the two smallest. I couldn't resist kidding him about their diminutive size, which he took well and indeed gave as good as he got. The fish were in the trout family, but narrower and having a more pointy-head than rainbows, browns and others that I'm more familiar. After cleaning, the bulk done by Dr. Samaeva, the approximately thirty fish were poured into a pot of boiling water with a few seasonings added to become fish stew; eaten with great relish by all, and accompanied by wild mushrooms, selected with care an expertise by the women present, and lettuce leaves, the first I had seen since arriving. The leaves were not served in a salad, but in a bowl from which people pulled out and ate individual leaves.

"Do you eat lettuce often?" I said.


"When? I never see it in a market." (or rarely served at a meal)

"That's because we grow and eat our own," said Nina.


"Fifty percent of all forest fires in Russia are started by man," I said quoting stats read in The Moscow Times a couple weeks earlier.

My first dismay about Russian fire handling was when finding the glowing embers left by the departing Germans and their Russian guide on my adventures on Lake Baikal. I made sure their fire was out, as well as our own - an act I could see my fellow campers saw as a bit odd. Still they pitched in along with cleaning up our site (the German delegation also left a mess, though modest in comparison to much I had seen in Russia).

After our fishing feast, where we had the pleasure of the mayor of Orlik joining us (a person who also served as the mayor of two other communities), I noticed that our group was prepared to leave with our fire and deep bed of coals still burning. I raised my concerns about the dangers of unattended fires leading to forest fires and recommended that we put it out.

"Fire is sacred to us," said Dr. Samaeva.

"I understand," I said. "The fire of the sun lights and heats our world. Fires heat our homes, cook our food and do so much more. As a consequence fire deserves our respect."

"The people over there will watch out for our fire," said another.

"They didn't start this fire, we did," I said. "It is our responsibility not theirs."

"Fire is a part of nature."

"Nature didn't start this fire. We did. Just as nature puts out its fires, so we should put out ours. Fifty percent of all fires are started in Russia by man, not nature."

This discussion went on for some time with my mantra becoming fifty percent of all fires… and taking responsibility. I also said that I too came from a region that looked and felt very much like theirs and told the story of the huge fire in the American southwest a few years ago that destroyed millions of acres and homes - and was started by a person working for the forestry service. In the end the fire was put out, and I was pleased that it was done the next day as well this time with good spirit and all repeating the mantra.

It might be easy to feel smug and that we know better, but all of the people present heat their homes with wood. Temperatures reaching fifty below zero for weeks at a time is not uncommon. Here it is the 25th of August and the sun is now only setting at 9:15 P.M. I can only imagine the hours of darkness I am about to encounter in December and January. Fire is sacred. It can mean life or death, and quickly.

The litter along the highway and especially near sacred sites and camping areas is equally alarming. Slogans such as "Carry it in, carry it out" can make a difference. In my trips to Siberia, and travels about our own country, I am aware of how difficult behavior change is - I constantly fail at getting daily exercise - yet I'm also aware that slogans, persistence, respect, humor and admitting ones own failures can make a huge difference. As an example, in subsequent travels Yanzhima shares our fire story with others as she has found it a good way to explain my persistent personality; I hear her saving, "Fifty percent of all fires are started by man…"


"Tonight is to be a holiday," said Dr. Ardan.

"What's the holiday?" I said.

"You are leaving."

"This is a cause for celebration? I have been here only four days."

"Yes because you accomplished so much," he said. "But first we will go over to Dr. Peter's to celebrate his 54th birthday. His wife has prepared lots of food. They will have plenty of vodka. Then we will go out in the forest and have a picnic and celebrate your holiday."

The general layout of a Russian wooden home is a huge brick stove-oven-furnace built in the center with everything laid out around it. Turkish rugs are sometimes hung as room dividers. Windows, few in number, invariably are filled with geraniums. The floors are painted wood (usually brown) and the walls are made of six to eight inch squared pine logs covered on the inside by either lath and plaster, smooth plywood, or more recently thin sheet rock usually painted white or light blue. Overall the house is furnished modestly. Peter's home was filled with imaginative details, such as built in floor to ceiling cupboards, and larger than most with a true extra room. With great pride his wife told us he built the house himself.

The long kitchen table near bent with the weight of the smoked fish, pickled mushrooms, salad, season fresh potatoes, just baked bread, jams, vodka, posies (meat steamed in pasta) and other delights. We eight crammed around on benches, stools and one block of wood. The toasts required a person to get up on their hindquarters and spout forth, none better than Dr. Samaeva's moving tribute to Peter. He was deeply pleased and his wife very honored. The night before she brought me near to tears with a created-on-the-spot song she sung to honor my mother; tonight she did the same to honor Peter. It was heartfelt and clearly well deserved - and well sung in a beautiful voice that sent shivers up all our spines.

By this time I had completely forgotten about the picnic. No one else had. Meat was seasoning. Baskets were being packed. Extra vodka sent for. Clearly for them round one was an appetizer. I have since learned that four to five fairly full meals a day is not unusual.

Climbing back into the hospital's 4x4, we bounced off all in good spirits. A lovely glen was found and soon cleared of wandering cows and horses. While a fire was being built in a previously established fire pit located right under a tree -I felt one fire fight in two nights was all I could handle, although did point out the dangers and overhead singed branches to Yanzhima - people spread out on various tasks of collecting wood, mushrooms and wild blueberries. Dr. Samaeva and Dr Peter's wife had on the ride over a modest level of disagreement about the reading of a person's palm - my palm to be exact. After the basic tasks were in place, Yanzhima, Svetlana and Dr. Samaeva found a sunny spot by a brook where she could better read my digits without interruption.

Read all my digits. Hands were not enough. Dr. Samaeva wanted to see my feet (like a young man's she said), check my calves, and poured over my hands pointing out the obvious to her two colleagues who seemed be in full agreement. It was pronounced that I would live to be one hundred, a statement that later lead to the Orlik Hospital kitchen mural being seen as my portrait when nearing that age. Naturally several of the pronouncements were flattering and who would disagree; some remarkable in their past accuracy and we've to see in regards to the future proclamations one being that I'd be doing more of such work.

Skewered meat roasted over a bed of coals was the featured course wrapped around with leftovers and additions to items served earlier. The practice of serving leftovers seemed constant throughout my stay. Last night's dinner becomes tomorrow's breakfast. Meals, as a result, have an evolving quality. Few leftovers, by the way are covered in plastic wrap or put in plastic jars to be stored in the refrig. Instead they are usually left on the table with a plate or bowl turned over on them. Shopping tends to be a daily activity.

The meat was cooked to a crisp. I fought to get and keep those pieces found on the edges of the skewers enabling me to acquire some tasty morsels in the medium rare to medium range, an activity that was resisted by cook Peter. He thought me mad. I noted that the practice of reaching for food was continued. People will often stand and reach far across a table and stab a slice of tomato or grab a slice of bread than ask for it, but happily pass an item if asked. Indeed to ask for one item was to have everything coming your way. Towards the end of the meal the host tends to push any dishes still with food on any deemed lacking in their ability to acquire food or intake during the meal.

Shots glasses were filled with vodka and the second round of toasts began. Clearly everyone was deeply moved by the changes wrought in the Children's Hospital and the community decision-making and painting process. (Often during the transformation of the hospital, the list of volunteers and color scheme vote tallies were immediately shown to any person reviewing the work being accomplished). While many toasts were directed my way, every person was honored for their part. Dr. Samaeva for painting the first mural back in 1986; Dr. Ardan for being such a forceful advocate and recruiting so many volunteers; Yanzhima for bringing me there, opening doors, helping to facilitate the process and her painted hearts on the kitchen table; the volunteers for all their hard work; and for the planned future activities.

This time Svetlana lead us into song by singing one in French, English (a Beatles tune) and Russian. Dr. Samaeva pulled out a heart-rendering classic that had all joining in, and Nina lead us in the Buryat national song that had everyone on their feat and singing arm in arm.

"Now for an American song," said Dr. Samaeva clapping her hands with enthusiasm.

I was afraid of that and was pretty sure the request was coming, as Russians love to sing after meals and love to have everyone contribute. I'm terrible at singing, carrying a tune, keeping the beat and remembering the words - and terribly embarrassed, much going back to my grade school singing teacher who, on her once weekly appearances in our homeroom, would line us all up at the end of the classroom, have us sing classic traditional folk songs and pull me out (as being so bad) and make me sit and watch my classmates sing week after week, several years on end until the blessed graduation out of sixth grade. The only time I've truly enjoyed singing was when dear friend Jeanne Parr and I once drove to the Adirondacks from New York. She is equally bad and tone death. We had a grand time howling away, each secure in our inability to sing better or embarrass the other. About the only thing I can do fairly well is Tuvan throat singing, a feat that never fails to startle Buryats and Russians, but unfortunately I didn't know any full tunes in that facility.

So here I was remembering my first trip over with the Adirondack delegation that included the A-team of Barbara Rottier, who could, it seems, remember any song ever heard, and Celia Evans, an accomplished songwriter and balladeer. They easily filled requests with such ability that any thoughts of me were forgotten. Not this time. The floodlight was on. The curtain drawn back. The microphone in my hand. The audience eagerly waiting. Gad.

I launched in an animated and acted out, "When the ants go marching one by one, Hurrah, Hurrah, When the ants go marching one by one, Hurrah, Hurrah, The little one stops to look at the sun, and they all go marching down into the earth to get out of the rain, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom. When the ants go marching two by two…"

It worked. They squealed with laughter joining in on the "all go marching down into the earth" and especially the "Boom, Boom, Boom," bit.

Dr. Samaeva then gave another toast, in it praising me for being kind, smart, handsome and a few other superlatives helped along by the spirit of the moment. She paused and asked about the meaning of my name. I responded what it stood for by repeating the praises she just gave. She enjoyed that, but persisted and asked what it meant.

"It's just an old family name," I said.

"What's your family, what's your blood?"

"On my mother's side German."

"Where from?"

"Originally from near Leipzig in former East Germany, near the village of Altenberg where Bach wrote and performed much of his music."

"Ahh, Saxony, and were there any kings in your family?"

"No, they, Gerstenbergers, were once knights to the Prince of Altenberg, but mostly they have been doctors, teachers and other professionals, especially since being in America.

"And your father's family?"

"Dutch, as is often said in Europe Hollandish or from the Netherlands - from the north east part of Holland called Friesland.

"Ahh Friesan, and..."

"It is believed that they came there originally from Sweden they were Norsemen."


"They liked to go on extended shopping sprees by boat to England and even visited Moscow from time to time to sack and pillage a bit."

"Yes, I think so. Wikoff sounds a bit Russian. You may have a drop or two of Russian blood, I think so. And since your family moved to America, what then?

"Mostly they were farmers for many generations, sometimes merchants, and my grandmother, at age seventeen started her first hotel which not only resulting in her parents working for her but getting several generations into the hotel business."

Dr. Samaeva pumped me for a few more details learning about my father being an athlete poet and guide, grandfather building the first children's hospital, brother being a medical illustrator and so on until she seemed satisfied.

"Women of town wish to know these things," she said.

"They do?"

"Yes, because they have asked me to ask you if they could have permission to name their children after you and, if so, what the name means - what it stands for. Your name stands for much. I will recommend it. Do they have your permission?"

"To name their children after me?"


"Ah yes, I'm flattered. Gosh the thought of coming back in five years and finding several small Naj's running around."

Taking a beat, I said, "I hope they aren't expecting me to help father all these children."

This brought tears of laughter from the group and Dr. Samaeva nearly dropping her vodka.

"No, no," she said. "They are just asking permission to use the name.

The next day, when getting ready to leave Orlik, Dr. Ardan presented me with a very withered gnarly small root.

"What's that?" said Yanzhima.

"It looks like Ginseng," I said.

"It is," he said. "Sayanie Ginseng. Very rare. It is only found in these mountains. We make tea out of it. If you soak it in a bottle of vodka for thirty hours, it is very powerful - nature's Viagra. You made need it."

Laughing I said, "Yanzhima, give some of this to Nicholi (her husband). You could have great weekend on Baikal."

"No," she said snatching it. "I don't want him to use this when I'm away in Moscow. But I think I will make up some of this vodka. It might be wise to have some around."

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