Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

23 Jul 2001, 5:50 a.m.

Hi, I'm fine, and back in Piter

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

This is the "I'm alive, though my forehead is one large mass of bug bites" entry. I'm back in St. Petersburg, working on the Solovki Islands travelogue. John's diary of the trip will probably be updated much faster than mine, since he does macro/summary and I do micro/details.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at

Some Solovki with your bits today?

Mon Jul 23rd, 2001 at 09:04:55 AM PST

I took a group excursion to the Solovki Isles in the White Sea, escaping St. Petersburg for the past few days. Here's the first part of my travelogue.

Wednesday: The Departure.
So, on Wednesday, we had no class, and -- unexpectedly -- I had not gone to a club the previous night with my tutor (she was too tired), so I got to wake up somewhat early and very bright to pack and do errands before getting on the train for the boat to the Solovki Islands in the White Sea.

Here's my list from that morning, slightly edited to take out really personal stuff.

  • Food
  • Water
  • Juice
  • 900 Days
  • Cheeselcoth
  • Mosquito OFF!
  • Fumigator
  • Vitamins/medicines
  • 5 days' clothes
  • Towel
  • soap, shampoo, toothbrush
  • moisturizer, sunblock
  • Toilet paper
  • First-aid kit
  • Pens, notebook (?)
  • Film, camera
  • plastic bags
  • Purple plastic cup, utensils
  • pyjamas
  • Sweater
  • To buy: Gulag Archipelago by Solzenhitsyn
  • To buy: Hat
  • D.H. Lawrence book
  • [various expurgated things]

And I had to change money via a traveler's check and do Internet stuff. (That was when I finished my Moscow travelogue, by the way.) I was able to leave my stuff at the university while doing most of the errands. I did not get to buy a hat or anything else I'd wanted in the way of traveling supplies, or find Gulag Archipelago at any bookstores. I only tried Dom Knigi ("house of books") on Nyevskii Prospekt, the big, well-located bookstore across from the Kazan Cathedral by the university. They're surprisingly low on English translations of Russian authors. All they had was August 1914 and a few Tolstoys, that I could see. I bought really cheap editions of The Great Gatsby (to reread) and a collection of Guy de Maupassant short stories to read for the first time.

While on the Internet and whilst packing, I found out that I'll be arriving in San Francisco, CA around 10:45 pm on August 7, via San Francisco International Airport, on SunCountry Flight #27 from Minneapolis/St. Paul. As a bit of a side note, if you'll be in the area, it would be great if I could arrange some sort of welcoming party at the gate.

When I came back to the university to pick up my stuff and head to the train station, I heard a discussion in progress among three of the four men in our twenty-person group of ACTR participants. It would seem that all of the men had to be in coupes with three unknown Russians each. The consensus (in male-banter manner) was that Gregg would be stuck with three large, hairy, male homosexual Russians, and Gregg declared, in typical profane Gregg manner, "As long as they don't have AIDS, I don't give a shit." (Gregg is John's roommate; they're the only two of twenty not in homestays with Russian families.)

People grabbed their stuff and left for the metro. Poor John had a really hard time with the crowds, cranky turnstiles, the heat, and a HUGE suitcase. We got to the train. Katie and I were in a coupe with a cute little boy of around maybe two years, his mother, and her mother. (The consensus, among those who would know -- namely John and me -- was that this kid was cute, but not nearly as cute as the girl playing with the bronze ducks in Moscow.)

The eighteen hours of train loomed in front of us as a void of pain. It was very, very, very hot and humid, and many of the windows opened little or not at all. As well, no one had a coupe composed of only Americans. Ergo, when we discovered that two of our happy band had only one coupe-mate, and he was away for most of the evening, that coupe became "the party coupe."

The "party coupe" was not just a nice place to socialize, in English, free of guilt at excluding Russians, although it was that. You see, during the Moscow trip, when other passengers in our group had discovered a lamentable lack of vodka with which to socialize, a number of them had vowed to correct the fault during the trip to Solovki. And so there was a great deal of sloshability, of booze, of drink, of alcohol, available to anyone who wished to partake, in the "party coupe." And in Russia the law says that the drinking age is 18 years old, and even that is not so much a limit, as drinking is so a part of the national culture that families teach their young'uns to drink, all together.

I wish that I'd written that long, rather impassioned entry before I left for Solovki, the one in which I described the various pressures I was feeling to change my beliefs, ideas, and behaviors regarding alcohol. But I didn't, so I'll just try to discuss it now.

I was in D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) back in elementary school, and fell for it hook, line, and sinker. (Hey, I won the class essay contest on "Why I Will Never Use Drugs" and I loved it, okay?) I even signed the little pledge to never use illegal drugs -- including alcohol, if I recall corerctly! And my parents don't drink and never have, and since I didn't have many friends of my own before college, in my younger days I didn't see many non-negative portrayals of alcohol use in real life. Only in the last few years have I come to see alcohol drinking, possibly, as a not-necessarily-evil thing. And even that wavers sometimes!

I mean, I don't come up against many huge ethical dilemmas in my life, I think. But the question of substance use makes me wax philosophical, at least privately. If Alice is tipsy, or even flat-out drunk, and she says or does something that she would not do if she were sober, then did Alice really do it? Generally, I believe that if people choose to ingest psychoactive substances, then they should be responsible for what they do under the influences of those substances. But what about opinions? And behaviors? If I ask Alice whether she loves Bob, or feels guilty about using Windows, and when sober whe says yes and when drunk she says no, or vice versa, then what does that really tell me?

I want to be in charge of myself. And I already second-guess myself all the time. I really didn't want to ever do anything that I would not choose to do if sober. So what, then, could be the appeal of alcohol? Differences in perception? But I wouldn't be able to explore those differences without taking some risks and behaving somewhat differently than I would if sober. What a mess.

I generally don't like to mess with my body. It's doing a fine job, on its own, taking care of my business. I generally stay away from caffeine, and don't smoke, and don't do any of the illegal drugs (e.g., cocaine, marijuana, MDMA), and try to eat and drink in a way that will keep my body slenderish and working well. And most of these precautions and preferences don't set me apart from my peers. Except drinking. Almost everyone my age drinks in the United States, I think, even if it's just one or two drinks a month. And, in Russia, not drinking alcohol sets one apart even more. I, the only vegetarian, the only nonwhite, the only one from UC Berkeley, the only one with less than two years of Russian classes under my belt, in these twenty ACTR St. Petersburg students, was also -- I'm pretty sure -- the only teetotaler when I arrived in Washington, D.C., six weeks ago for orientation.

But I was curious, and it's legal here, and I am with a bunch of people whom I trust not to take advantage of me when I'm vulnerable, and it was a safe environment, and Mom, Dad, I know you won't like this, but I tried drinking alcohol. And I didn't do it to rebel against you, to make you mad or to dash your hopes or anything. I did it to ... well, I'm trying to figure out why I did it, just as I was trying to figure out whether to do it.

Note that all of my previous tiny excursions into trying alcohol were Russian-related and had absolutely no effect on my state of mind.

  1. A year ago, back in the States, on a field trip into the Little Moscow in San Francisco, I drank some kvas at a Russian restaurant. Kvas is a fermented black bread beverage that is -- so I'm told -- an acquired taste. Well, the food was kind of unpleasant, but not nearly so much as the kvas. After a longish car ride home, I threw up. I'm not sure to what I should ascribe the vomiting.
  2. I went to Cafe Idiot almost exactly a month ago. I wrote about it in my K5 diary. Basically, I was with four friends, and everyone gets a free shot of vodka with dinner, and I tried about three drops of it, and it tasted vile and reminded me of a dentist's office and affected my consciousness almost none.
  3. At my homestay, about three weeks ago, I had a sociable dinner with Vera (my homestay mother) and two of her friends. They accepted that I don't drink, but they were drinking, and I decided to try some. I had, on a full stomach, a shot of vodka. I felt nothing in my head, only a burning warmth spreading down my gullet.
  4. Also at my homestay, about three or so days before I left St. Petersburg, there was a little party going on when I arrived home around midnight. I was already tired and my Russian skills were already slightly worse for wear that night. I didn't know the people, they all spoke at the same time, they had already been drinking, and one of them kept trying to speak to me in bad English -- to translate, helpfully, I suppose. So it was already hard for me to understand what they were saying and what was going on (besides the obvious obligation to eat, drink, be merry, and eventualy sleep). I was offered a small glass of "champagne cognac" with which to make toasts and join in the general festivities. I drank most of this very small glass during the course of eating a big dinner -- that took about an hour, I think. I remained confused.

John, who is not opposed to drinking, has had many conversations with me on the subject. He and I have noted a problem somewhat related to my last experience there. I'm already honest (read: uninhibited), extroverted (read: loud), and not completely graceful (read: clumsy). He imagined that I would not change that much, under a mild tipsiness.

Well, I decided to try to find out. I grabbed a plastic cup, and over a few hours, I drank about four servings of vodka, some with pineapple juice and some without, in the convivial atmosphere of a crowded train compartment.

Quotes from the evening include:
"It has been requested that you walk like an Egyptian."
"This is an epistemological problem." "If you can still say 'epistemological'..."

Here are my notes from the epedition into haziness. Actually, it wasn't that hazy. It just felt -- in retrospect, it just felt like a slight exaggeration of my normal clumsiness when tired and trying to maneuver in close quarters whilst on board a rocking (not rockin') Russian train. But, in any case, here are my notes:

So I'm drinking for the first time. Vodka, usually with pineapple juice. After a few drinks, my quick-vision-switching seems somewhat affected, and moving around (getting up, walking) seems different. But inhibitions seem intact, as does fine motor control (I reached into my $ [shorthand for "money"] belt to get this pen & notebook), and hand-eye coordination. Kyem [circled]. Our stop. [Jon Stone, our Resident Director, told us that the town of Kyem -- the name of which which I wrote in Russian -- was the stop where we would have to exit the train the next morning, to catch the boat to Solovki.]

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at