I'm back in the hotel lobby today with a fully charged battery and quite the experience this morning. Paul, Yan, and I were just browsing potential hostels for Moscow and St. Petersburg. In a few minutes, Rose and I are going to brave the train station to try to get tickets to those cities. From what we've heard, it's quite the ordeal, so fingers crossed! There's 7 of us going to Moscow, and 6 going to St. P, so I hope it all comes together well. Paul's been saying that it's no big deal if we can't get tickets to St. P because he can "just pop right over again another time". The rest of us point out then that it's slightly easier with his living in the UK than for those of us from the states. We'll see what happens.
So. This morning I was assigned to go to the Hospital for Women, a psychiatric institution. It was a good thing that those who had been there before briefed me on it, because it was startling even with descriptions of what it would be like.
The van dropped Nina, Allison, Tanya, Julia (the translator), and I off in front of a three-story cement building painted an orangey-red. The windows all have bars across them, but the bars are arranged in kind of sun-ray-shaped patterns, so it's not as awful-looking as you might expect.
We climbed up a staircase to the second floor, and were shown into a small room by one of the nurses. There, we changed to the indoor shoes we brought with us, then donned knee-length white cotton shirts, kind of like doctor's jackets. I imagine we wear these to stand out among the patients?
Once ready, they unlocked a wooden door and Julia was immediately hugged by two of the patients who were excited to see her again. We stepped inside and were lead into the common room by some of the women. There were maybe 30 women in there, all gathered at the door. They lined up on either side of it in clumps, making a sort of human passage-way for us to pass through to get to the tables at the back of the room. We got to the table at the back, and one of the nurses locked the entrance after us.
The women were all wearing flower-printed nightgowns and dressing gowns, hospital-issued, I guess. Most of them had their hair cut short and messily, and they all had brown, jagged, or missing teeth. More startling than their appearance was the smell - the stink really hit you when you walked in. Nina immediately opened up some windows, but the compressed stench stayed on my clothes even after we left the placement.
I was surprised, I suppose, that in this situation the Hollywood movies I've seen of mental hospitals were not exaggerating.
Allison plugged in a CD player, and put on one of the two CDs in our bag - Dance Hits of the 90s, I'm guessing it was. I was surprised at how much the music helped. I immediately felt more at ease, and the room seemed easier to handle once there was that background filler, even if it was Gloria Estafan. One woman came up to me and asked me, in English, what my name was. I told her and asked her the same in Russian. Her name was Vera. She seemed very nice, actually. She was also not at all shy. Later, I was coloring a picture with a woman who kept telling me a very long something in Russian. Julia couldn't help me translate since the woman was mumbling so much that even Julia, a local, could not understand her. When Vera came over to us, the mumbling woman greeted her like a friend and told me something that was apparently quite funny to her and Vera. Vera then seemed to agree, and to prove whatever the story was, she lifted up her nightgown and showed me... I don't know what the point was. Her underwear? Her breasts? Her scars? I have no idea. Nor did I have the slightest idea how I was supposed to respond to that.
So there was coloring, and a stack of magazines that several women immediately took to another table to look through, and the main craft of the day, dreamcatchers. It turns out that although I had nothing to do with the planning of the activity, I was the only one in the group who actually knew how to make a dreamcatcher. We used pipecleaners to make the hoop, yarn to string the net across it, and beads and feathers for the decoration. We assisted the women in making them, sometimes just making the majority of one ourselves, then passing it on to them to finish and show off. The ones who participated seemed quite please with themselves and with the project. One women, who Julia said has never participated before, spent a lot of the second half of the time with me, and she made two of them rather well. She insisted that we finish the second one before we left, actually.
Another woman sat there watching me work with that lady, but she kept saying she didn't want to join us. As the first woman learned enough to work on her own, I started fiddling with the extra pipe cleaners. I made a face out of a few of them, and offered it to the second woman. She held it up to her face, trying to see out of the eyes, then complained that it didn't fit. She started to yell for Julia, and told Julia "Malenka! Malenka!" - too small, too small. So, I made a pair of glasses for her out of pipe cleaners. She was thrilled! She put them on immediately and spent the rest of the morning going around to people, beaming at them through these black and white pipecleaner frames.
They are all medicated, I guess, so there was a lot of them just sort of drifting about. They were quiet, on the whole, but I guess sometimes they can be quite loud. One woman I was warned about before, because she once got a bit of glue on her hand, and after she washed it off, she began screaming, believing that the glue was there and spreading up her arms, across her body.
A few of them liked dancing, and they pulled Tanya and Allison out to the middle to dance to the music. When one CD ended, they immediately insisted that we fix it.
Some of the women were quite skilled. One used a needle and thread we brought her to sew together a cup she had made out of folded candy wrappers, cutting the bottom for it out of a juice box she had been saving until we came. Another woman brought us a doll she had made to show us. The doll was made out of yarn, with a scrap of fabric tied to make a dress over it. There were two beads for eyes, and a bit of felt for a mouth. The doll was actually quite well made, but the most remarkable part of it was the little booties she had crocheted for it. She told us, through Julia, that she had crocheted the booties using a pipecleaner as a crochet hook, since the real kind are not allowed. It was amazing.
After about 2 hours, we packed up our supplies, said many, many goodbyes, and went back to the little room. There we changed shoes again, packed up the smocks and supplies, counted the scissors (we have to make sure that we don't leave any scissors, needles, or long pieces of string there), and headed back.
Most of you know that I signed up for this trip in the first place as a risk-taking exercise. Well, I think my morning spent in a mental institution was by far one of the biggest risks I've ever taken in my life. I'm happy to say that I did it, I learned from it, and I think that if I am scheduled for there again, I will look forward to it. And next time I'm going to bring my pictures from home to show them.