Thursday, August 27, 2009

Good News

This morning I spoke with the Moscow Fulbright office and received some interesting, and all around great news. Turns out the head institution in Moscow (of which my Kamchatka university is an affiliate) responsible for processing my documents simply did not get around to it...nothing like procrastination. They have, however, promised to expedite the process from this point on, and barring any more setbacks I should receive my formal invitation needed to apply for my visa in two-weeks time.

This is a monumnetal relief, as I now have an updated timeline for my departure. But, what's so interesting about this? Well, all Fulbright recipients in Russia must attend a security briefing/orientation in Moscow on October 5. Financially, it does not make a lot of sense to send me all the way across the country back and forth several times within a month. So, Fulbright and the head institution in Moscow have come to an agreement that I will spend the time between my arrival in Moscow (in mid-Sept) and the end of the orientation (Oct. 6) teaching at the head institution! This means I get a few weeks to teach in and explore Moscow, which is really exciting. The university has agreed to put me up in their dormitories which are located in the Moscow suburbs, leaving me with a commute via metro, bus, and foot to the university and to the city center, so I'm really thrilled to witness the craziness that is Moscow traffic and transportation.

Unfortunately, this means that I will not be arriving in Kamchatka until October, over a month into the academic year. My courses will need to be a bit expedited, and I will be missing out on the September camping/hiking trips offered by the university in P-K. But, I should still have plenty of time to explore the volcanoes after the snow begins falling!

That's it for now; will let you all know when I hear more and have more concrete plans.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The 'Risk' of my Life

First, a stateside introduction to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (henceforth 'P-K'...for obvious reasons).

P-K is located on the Kamchatka peninsula in the Far East of Russia. And 'Far' seems a bit of an understatement. For those who are familiar with the boardgame 'Risk,' you may be recall that landmass at the edge of the board leading into the Northwest Territory, or modern-day Alaska. Well, no, Kamchatka does not exist only in Hasbro's imagination--it is a real-life place and, believe it or not, human beings do in fact inhabit this far-off peninsula. This reference to Risk has so far proven to be the most effective introduction in explaining where I will be spending the next year of my life.

Needless to say, I was shocked when I discovered I would be traveling all the way around the world for my Fulbright year. I suppose I was expecting a posting at least within a 20-hour train ride of Moscow or St. Petersburg. Well, for those of you unfamiliar with just how vast Russia really is, P-K is located a whopping 10-hour plane flight and 9 time zones away from Moscow. In fact, it is 17 (seventeen!) time zones away from the East Coast of the US. I have since discovered through my own amateur research that Kamchatka will prove quite an exhilerating experience.

According to that venerable research engine, Wikipedia, P-K is the second-largest city in the world not accessible by roads. That is, roads exist within the city but do not extend far beyond--for one simple reason: it is surrounded by an active volcano range. The peninsula lies within, or on the border of, the Pacific Ring of Fire, the same tectonic phenomenon that causes volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis throughout the Pacific. One of the peninsula's volcanoes erupted in January of 2009, but thankfully did not endanger the city enough to warrant an evacuation. Active volcanoes loom over the city of P-K, making for a very striking and forebod
ing backdrop to the city's crumbling Soviet architecture and infrastructure. P-K is the largest, and really only significant city on the peninsula, home to around 275,000 people, most of whom are engaged in the fishing industry or are members of the Russian navy. P-K is situated on the coast of the Bering Sea and the Avacha Bay, across which is situated the Ribachiy Nuclear Submarine Base--Russia's largest such base and the hub of the country's Pacific Nuclear Submarine Fleet. Many of you may be thinking: why would nuclear powered subm
arines be housed in such a tectonically volatile area? Isn't there a serious potential for disaster there? Well, go figure.

On the upside, however, most of the peninsula is protected as national park sites because of its unique and exceptional flora and fauna and geologic wonders. As mentioned, volcanoes dot the entire peninsula, and in between them lie groupings of active geyser fields as well as some lush plains and flowing rivers that provide homes for the largest brown bear population in Eurasia, an abundance of salmon, wolverines, golden eagles, and a host of other wildlife. So, as inaccessible as some of these wonders may be by road, hiking expeditions and helicopter rides allow a rare glimpse at this untouched land. That is, when the land is not covered in heaps of winter snow, as it is for much of the year. This does have its own upside, though, in mountain and cross-country skiing opportunities.
I hope to take full advantage of these opportunties when I am not working, because I was, of course, granted the Fulbright scholarship with the expectation of doing a bit of teaching... I recently received some limited information regarding my work, and this also came as a bit of a shock. I will be teaching 2nd year pre-law university students a course on the American and British legal and judicial systems. My first reaction: WHAT?!?! My second reaction: race down to the public library and check out 'The Idiot's Guide to the US Constitution'. It has so far proven invaluable in refreshing my already limited knowledge on constitutional law, and I think I have a good enough grasp now to cover at least half a semester of lecturing. I will also be teaching English-language courses in three local middle/high schools. One of these will be for 9th graders, and I am still waiting on my assignments in the two remaining schools. The biggest challenge comes in not knowing the English skills of my students before I arrive--I can't very well set up syllabi for classes if I do not know their level of comprehension. On top of these assignments, I will be leading a course for English professors at the university, and I hope to give several public presentations at the local American Corner about holidays, sports, and life in general in the United States. I also plan on doing some research or volunteer work with local environmental organizations working to protect and preserve the wealth of wildlife on the peninsula.

That is about all I know at this point in time about my posting, which leaves me nervous but simultaneously stir-crazy and eager to get out there and explore. I am scheduled to leave from Washington DC this Thursday, August 27 at 4:50pm, and, after a layover in Moscow, arrive in P-K on Saturday, August 29 at 3pm local time (that is 10pm on Friday the 28th in DC). There have unfortunately been some delays in receiving my visa invitation from Russia, however, so I do not yet have all the official documentation necessary to enter the country. I may, therefore, have to delay my departure a few days, but I will know more about this at the beginning of next week...yet another nervewracking part of this whole experience.

For some additional reading on Kamchatka, I am adding a URL from a recent National Geographic article that appeared very serendipitously after I was given my assignment. It is from the August 2009 issue (Yellowstone on the cover) and deals specifically with the salmon-fishing industry on the peninsula ( There is also a photo gallery and a map that accompany the article which can be opened by links on the left-hand side of the page. Happy reading!

I will keep you updated on my travel plans, as well as any additional information that I receive about my assignment.