"Siberia 2007" story # 23

Chemal, Respublika Altai, Russia           July 19, 2007

I should've been naked. Someone should've been hitting me on the back with a tree branch.
     The Russian word for torture is "pytka". But, this was "banya" (a sauna). The difference between them is that Russians will PAY FOR "banya".
     I was wearing my swimsuit - a common American first-time "banya-er" mistake. And I was alone. Thus, the tree-branches rested on the sauna's seating ledges, and no one beat me with them - a tradition which, along with the desire for vodka, I don't understand.
     I had just used a scooper to throw water on hot rocks in the bottom of the furnace. White steam shot out. To this point, the spacious new-wood sauna had been warm. But now, one by one, the molecules in the room began getting so electrically hot they popped like corn.
     Was I supposed to be enjoying this? I focused instead on surviving. It felt like an on-fire house was breathing on me. Sweat poured. Red skin fought to protect me.
     I felt attacked. Scalding dots of red surrounded me and crept down my throat, each containing tiny Grim Reapers who stole my cells away in flames. It felt like too much; I should combust.
     Beside me, where I stood, ready to escape when I thought I was going to fall into Hell, was a tub with water. Maybe the water was supposed to be cold, but it was barely even cool. This was my relief.
     My strategy was that, each time a part of my body felt like it was experiencing first-degree burns, I'd throw cool water on it - thus rationing the water I otherwise would've dumped on me all at once.
     First, my face felt swarmed by the humidity. I palmed water onto it. . then my chest. . then my left arm needed relief. . then the right. . then my left leg felt grilled. . then my chest.
     The water brought about one-and-a-half seconds of relief to each body part. The tub of water was quickly emptying. Would the steam from the wet rocks wear off first, or would I pop too?
     I couldn't sit down, because the elevation change threatened to burn up my esophagus when I considered it. Red. My thoughts were red.
     Water from the tub leaked off me. Red. Scooping water on me brought me less and less relief; about 0.3 seconds of relief with each scoop. Red. The skin on my chest and inner mouth wanted to scream. "Run! Run, Justin! Run!"
     I made for the door. The four steps to the door seemed as impossible as if I would walk four steps through the Great Wall of China. The heat reached its tearing, chubby hands into my pores. The door was tough to open. In my nightmares, it would've been locked from the outside ... but it was open.
     I stepped out into the Altai Mountains' night. Relief. I was in the open-air dressing room. A second door from there could lead me to a cold pool of water. Further relief.
     Man, I know Russians are strong. But, that was "strashnyy" (terrible)! (Of course, I hadn't paid for the experience; a rural campground had invited me to it.)
     The campground also graciously fed me. I ate crispy potato patties containing soft ground-beef oysters, touched with lemon. Mmm. Their homemade "kvas", a drink made by leaving dry bread in maple sap for three days, tasted like stale beer - but better.
     Do you know what? Following the time in the "banya," I felt much better. I felt like all my body's lazy, unmotivated cells had been zapped. I felt ready to walk a kilometer through the dark forest, to search through hills and plants without any light like a mole, and to find the tree where I'd hidden my bags so I could set up my tent and sleep. And that's what I did.

- peace and relief, Modern Oddyseus

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