Sunday, March 7, 2010

Masha's yurt

My friend Masha can do it all. She can diagnose and repair cars, she can rebuild apartments and country houses, install new and repair old Soviet style electrical wiring, compile topological maps of archeological digs, and fix up old computers; she has had medical training, and is just about to graduate from university with a degree in structural engineering. About three years ago, she participated in a two-month long archeological expedition to Mongolia, where her team worked on unearthing remains of a burial grounds in the steppe. She brought back stories of Buddhist nomadic tribal lifestyle, recipes for making a carcass of meat last for weeks without refrigeration, stories of surviving flooding in the steppe.

During her trip to Mongolia, Masha has established a good working relationship with a team of St. Petersburg archeologists, and for the last two years has been working with them full time. There are several large scale archeological digs going on in St. Petersburg at this time, and Masha has helped to do it all: to excavate and clean artifacts, to document the progress of the digging by measuring and mapping the terrain, to compile budgets and to reconcile paper maps with computer based models. Lately, her work has been forcing her to spend many hours a day in front of a computer screen, and she complains: "I have a bad back," she says, "and this computer work is killing me. I could never have a sedimentary lifestyle, I need to be doing active physical labor all the time." So when her archeological team took over two basement rooms for storage and planning purposes, Masha took over the job of installing a ventilation system. The team had been thinking of subcontracting the job, but when they priced it out, it turned out they couldn't afford to hire anyone. So Masha bought all the necessary parts and put in a couple of 16 hour days to lay the piping and install equipment on her own -- on top of all the other jobs she had to do that day.

When Masha came back from Mongolia, she brought back a bunch of stories and photographs with her; and when I saw her a few months after her trip, she also gave me a souvenir: a tiny model of a yurt made of camel wool. There's a little leather door in the yurt, and when you lift it you can see that the yurt is painted on the inside with miniature furniture. I love picturing myself living inside the yurt -- it brings back to me my childhood dream of sharing a house with Masha and Inna; for years, I dreamed of the possibility of living in a tiny little house that would be only large enough to provide space for me and all of my friends underneath the same roof. As we get older, it becomes so much easier to dismiss these dreams as childish and silly (not the least of the reasons being that all of us have learned the hard way that living together is hard work and can ruin the best of friendships), but I do not want to let them go so easily. These dreams of life in complete union with my friends is probably what keeps bringing me back to St. Petersburg year after year -- and now it is also what makes me long to come back to San Francisco. The yurt is perfect because I can just fold it up and bring it with me.

Dave's blog about new experiences yesterday is here.

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