Welcome to Kayak… Vodka?

It is dangerous to walk into the hallway outside our room in Kayak. This is where the residents of the town loiter, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Americans. “Amerikanski! Amerikanski!” they cry. Then they grab us by the arm and start talking to us rapidly in booming Russian. The subject is usually unclear. They could be telling us about the weather, or they could be telling us about their childhood memories–about the hopes and dreams they had as children growing up in this tiny town crouching on a bed of coal. We do not know. “Ne pa knee maiyo,” we say. We do not understand. (We also do not know how to spell “Ne pa knee maiyo.”) We do not understand, but almost always there is one question that emerges from the chaotic jumble of Russian consonants: “Amerikanski! [Russian] [another Russian word] [more Russian]… Vodka?” Virtually every conversation concludes with an offer to share a few shots of vodka with us. Let us tell you, it is a difficult offer to refuse. Not because we want to drink vodka shots at four in the afternoon, but because the Kayakers show no inclination to let go of our arms unless we say yes.

Ben ventured out of the room tonight hoping to sneak towards the bathroom, but two hulking miners were lying in wait near the shoe rack. “Strasvoutsye! Strasvoutsye! Amerikanski!” they grabbed his arm, one on each side. Their necks were the size of the inner tubes on our rafts. Their hands on his upper arms were like two bear traps snapping closed.

“Ya ne pa knee maiyo…”

Roma came out to help Ben free himself, but instead one of the miners detached and grabbed Roma by the arm. Then he enveloped Roma in a giant hug, shouting in Russian.

“He says I am his friend,” Roma translated. The miner nodded vigorously, smiling, and then playfully wrapped his meaty hands around Roma’s neck and pretended to strangle him. “He says I am his very big friend,” Roma said, looking slightly careworn.

The other miner, meanwhile, had started shaking Ben’s hand up and down. He said something several times in Russian. Finally Ben caught one word: “Stat?” his miner was asking.

“Oh! California.”

“California!” The miner got excited. “Arnold Schwarzenegger! Terminator! Karushuo!”

“Da, Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Ben agreed.

Roma’s miner had briefly relented in his hugging in order to ask Roma Ben’s name.

“Ben! Ben! [A long Russian speech.]”

“He wants to tell you I am his very big friend,” Roma said at the end.

The miner enveloped Roma in another tremendous hug. Then he started sawing his finger back and forth across his throat, gleefully, in a kind of slashing motion.

“Beach Boys?” the other miner asked Ben. “Hang Loose? Bruce Lee?”

“Da,” Ben said. “Bruce Lee.”

“Vodka?” the miner suggested hopefully.

“Um, nyet.”

“Vodka!”

“He says we are best friends,” Roma said, emerging from another hug.

During this entire conversation, Seth hid behind the door of the room, trying not to laugh and attract attention to himself.

Volodia arrived just in time to rescue Ben and Roma. He shooed the miners off with a fatherly hand on each shoulder, and they went, smiling back and reaching out for one last handshake with Ben.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger!” Ben said, and the miner replied “Da! Da! Arnold Schwarzenegger!” A single moment of total understanding, and then the miner was gone out the door.

At dinner tonight, Volodia told us that the Kayakers will be having their version of a barbeque tomorrow night, and that we had all been (quite insistently) invited. Ben asked if there would be hamburgers. “No,” Volodia said. “But there will be vodka. And maybe they will fry some caribou meat.” Uh oh. Once we get back from the field tomorrow, we are planning not to leave the safety of our room. If we have to go to the bathroom, we’ll hold it. We’ll see how that goes.

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