I awoke to a cold yet soft breeze. Had this been summer or even a warm spring day, it likely would have gone unnoticed, but being January, it was just strong enough to creep through the wooden cabin walls and rouse my from my sleep. It had been two full days since I had arrived in the mountain village of Arkhyz, Russia and already I had grown to adore the place. The snow covered forests and fresh mountain air provided a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the Moscow city life. But this day, however, was particularly out of the ordinary (for me at least).
Despite being someone who tries to live for new, exciting experiences, there are a few seemingly normal things that, for some reason or another, I have never done. And today, I was going to finally cross something off of that list: skiing. 25 combined years of growing up in one of the snowiest areas in the US and living is Russia, but for some reason, I had never done this activity that most children first do around the age of five.
Lacking any necessary equipment, I donned my only winter coat and a pair of dark blue sweatpants (it was either them or jeans. I was ill prepared). Upon seeing this, my friend Anya stared wide-eyed. “Is that all you have?” I nodded with a big dumb grin like that of a dog who happily rolled in mud all morning. Anya sighed and we headed for the car.
The sun shined bright and the sky was almost entirely clear of clouds. The temperature hovered around -5C (24F) and the gentle wind that woke me before swept through the valleys. We drove about ten minutes, and then I saw it. A ski slope. I felt like one of the sailors on a Viking ship coming upon Canada (a place already inhabited for thousands of years by a variety of people) for the very first time.
Before I started, I needed to rent skis and equipment, which turned out to be pretty cheap and easy. For a second, I thought about trying to brave the mountain myself and see if I could go down on my own. I took one step with the skis on… then immediately fell flat on my back like a cartoon character stepping on a banana peel. Ok, I need an instructor.
I paid the surprisingly small fee for the lesson and was assigned an instructor named Ramazan, a man of about 30 with a shaved head, closely trimmed beard and dark aviator sunglasses. It was instantly clear that this was a man who meant business, and now he was ready to take on his next challenge and teach me, a bumbling galoof with the balance of a drunken baby giraffe. Quite a daunting task.
We introduced, speaking entirely in Russian (I understood about 60% of what was said) and then he began to show and explain the basics. He showed me how to walk with the skis, how to turn, position myself as I went downhill and, to my surprise, I actually felt like I was getting the hang of it. Was this true? Could I finally be able to ski after all these years? Ramazan told my I seemed ready and I prepared for my first ever descent. I crouched, grasped my ski polls at the ready, and looked over at Ramazan, who was now busy puffing down a cigarette, for the green light.
I began. I started off a bit slow, but then my confidence grew. I increased my speed. It was really happening. I was skiing! But then, just as I thought I was in control, a small child passed in front of me, and I realized that I actually had no idea how to stop. At the last second, I flung myself to the side and crashed to the ground like a ton of bricks. My legs twisted like spaghetti and my ears rang like a gong. I looked over at Ramazan, now halfway done with the cigarette, who was visibly trying to hold back a laugh. “Well, it looks like you invented a new way to stop,” he joked. I got up and dusted myself off, all the while trying to ignore the searing pain in my ankles. No time for pain. Time to ski.
Another ten minutes passed as we went over and practiced all the stopping techniques until it was yet again time for me to test my newly learned ability. As I crouched and readied myself, two children looking about five breezed past me as if it were nothing, but I couldn’t let that bother me. I had to focus. I only had a few minutes left of the lesson, so this was my chance! I pushed off with the ski-polls and began moving faster and faster. Could it be? I was nearing the end of the slope, now it was time for me to see if I could complete the descent. I pointed my skis inward and pushed down with my feel, and to my surprise, I began to slow! Before I knew it, I had stopped. Just about 25 years young and I finally skied down a mountain! I felt on top of the world as I went back to Ramazan, now on his second cigarette, and thanked him with all the energy I could muster. He laughed again and said he was glad to help. Now my day, and the trip as a whole, seemed complete. However, it was not…
Later on that evening, still riding high on my major accomplishment and all the coffee I had earlier in the day, I decided to go for a walk in the town. The temperature was just hovering around freezing and the sky was clear (basically the best possible weather for Russia in January). As I made my way down the town’s only paved street, I heard something. It sounded familiar, as if I had come across it before. Then it grew louder and louder. I began to walk closer, and soon I was able to see the source of it all. An old, dark red car had spun off the road into a snowbank and the driver, desperate to get unstuck, kept revving the engine with all his might. The wheels turned with a fury, but alas the car remained in place. I stopped for a second, then thought to myself, “Hey, I can help. I skied today, therefore I can do anything!” I walked over to see if I could lend a hand. That’s when I saw the driver…
And it was Ramazan, my ski instructor! I could barely believe it. Of all the people, the guy who just gave me my first ever ski lesson somehow crashed his car into a snowbank just as I happened to walk by. How the hell does this happen? And why can’t I have these bizarre coincidences when I buy lottery tickets? I called over to him and he suddenly jerked his head around, startled to see me again. Stupefied by the whole situation, it was a few seconds before either of us spoke, then finally I said, “Давай помогу” (let me help). He told me to get behind the car and push, so like an obedient student, I walked around, put my hands on the back bumper, dug my boots into the ground, and began to push with all the force I could muster. Ramazan floored the gas pedal and once again, the sound of an angry, struggling engine filled the air. At first there was nothing, but then the car rocked a little. The snow’s hold on the tires was beginning to break! I pushed harder, this time using my legs as much as a could, and now the car began to roll.
Twenty seconds later, the car was back on the road and Ramazan was overjoyed and said that he had to give me something in return to say thanks. I replied that it wouldn’t be necessary, but he insisted and told me to follow him. I really had no idea what to expect by this point, but since that had been the case for the majority of this trip, I decided to just go with it and hope for the best. The street was deserted with the exception of a couple of shops and a ski-rental place that had closed down for the night. The only thing that seemed to be open was a single, relatively small grocery store. This was our destination
We go to the door and he motioned for me to come in. I still had no idea what to expect, but by now that was thoroughly normal. I entered. Despite the small place, a wide selection of Russian and Caucasian food lined the walls and the refrigerated section was lined with local beer. Two women with dark, curly hair stood behind the counter. One looked as if she were my age and the other about 50. “This is my mother and sister. Then run the store.” Ramazan said. He then introduced me and explained the situation and grabbed a sandwich, halva (a sweet snack), and two beers from the fridge. He turned to me, “These are for you. No charge. If you ever come back, tell who ever is working that Ramazan is my brother. For you, it’s always free.”
Well, this was not at all what I was expecting. But, none the less, free food and drinks! Happily, I took was given to me and thanked the family. They smiled and said to come back any time. We then left the store and Ramazan hopped back into his car, now firmly on the paved road. “Remember,” he said, “just say: Ramazan is my brother.” Then he drove off into the mountains. I turned back and headed to the guest cabin in which I was staying, still in a state of disbelief of what had just happened. Then I thought to myself, “I wonder, how is Anya ever going to believe this?”