One Totality and Vodka to go thanks…

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The Black Sun shows itself...

The end of Totality is like hitting a release for your soul. “Like a reset for your brain”, as my Swiss friend told me just before I saw my first Totality. The end result is the kind of endorphin rush you might get after good exercise, good ecstasy or great sex.

The whole group is abuzz with energy, returning to reality after the divine moment.

We’ve just watched the sun do something that your entire life experience says it simply shouldn’t. Even when you understand the science of the moment, staring into the black sun is a surreal thing that should only happen in the kind of science fiction movie you watch at 2am……and yet, you’re standing there in the open air watching the reality unfold.

The sheer unexpected confusion that it causes to your mind gets resolved into a feeling of elation; a rush. All of the group with us today hit the high in the same way. Vortex Yulia has booked a huge table in a Jazz bar for all the Couchsurfers in town to meetup at eight o’clock and continue our celebrations long into the night. After watching the end of the partial eclipse, when the moon finally leaves the face of the sun, we have a couple of hours to go and the group breaks up. When we hit the Metro station Lukash is ushered by a policeman to the front of the massive queue of people waiting to buy tokens for entry to the system. His police escort then makes sure he arrives at the platform safely. He revels in this moment and his grin becomes even cheekier than normal. It seems I’m the only person who still has a token, so I follow him down the escalators to the platform and we jump the first train. We get hideously distracted at the craft markets we’d visited on Monday. Lukash wants to get a shirt marking the eclipse and starts a lengthy bargaining session with the ladies at the stall. He can speak fairly good Russian and the spectacle of this cheeky one-legged, one-armed little polish man bartering while standing against a trestle table that comes up to his shoulders draws a small crowd. I’m standing behind him minding his skateboard as he begins to enjoy the conversation. The women are determined not to give him any discounts, at one point he asks me if I want a shirt too because he might get a volume discount. I agree to get one if he can get them under 300 roubles (AUD$15). He tries again without success, so he starts asking if they can throw in one of the beautiful girls who are serving if he has to pay full price. The girl he points to at first blushes, but then rises to the occasion with some particularly flirtatious poses. By this time the crowd is completely on his side and the laughter and encouragement never let up. However, the woman running the stall remains steadfast and won’t give in. He does buy the shirt he wants and she throws handfuls of postcards and fridge magnets into the bag as the crowd slowly disperses. I’m still sure he could’ve had the girl too, at least for a drink…

Lukash being typically cheeky...

The rest of the crew join us at the end of the bartering and they all check out the markets before we return to Yulia’s apartment. Yulia cooks up a huge batch of pelmeni so we will all have something to eat before hitting the bar. I wolf down a plate or three of them covered alternately in adzhika sauce and mayonnaise. The rush of the eclipse has died down but surges in the group whenever someone remembers a part of the experience. All of the foreigners in our group have seen at least one other Totality and have actually travelled to see this one. Vortex Yulia takes me aside as we’re walking down the road,

“Now I understand. That was amazing, like nothing I’ve ever seen. When’s the next one?”
“July 22nd, 2009”, I say without hesitation, “not that I’m obsessed or anything”.
She laughs and continues, “Where will it be?”
“In China, it crosses right over Shanghai. Well, it starts in northern India, crosses over Bhutan, then all of China and some of the southern islands of Japan”
“How on earth do you know that?”
“I told you, I’m an eclipse chaser. The one a year after that crosses Easter Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That’s where I want to be for that one.”
“So they happen every year?”
“Well, solar and lunar eclipses occur more than once a year, it’s Totality that’s rarer. In 2004 and 2005 there were no Totalities, same in 2011.”
“So you will be in China next year?”
“Tochna. Da da da da da da”, I say in my best Russian accent, copying the way they like to repeat the word ‘da’.
She laughs and smiles as she says,
“I think I want to be there with you.”
“I hope you will be Yulia.”

I become a part of the general eclipse chaser conversation and we compare notes on the last few eclipses that we’ve seen. The stories about where we had been, who with and what happened are so diverse. It turns out that I’ve shared two eclipses with some of the guys, but we had been in different countries and, in the case of my first eclipse in the Australian desert, different continents. As we stroll through the streets of Novosibirsk the city feels lighter and more alive. Even passing Russians are smiling, perhaps because we can’t wipe the crazy grins from our faces and the mood is infectious. Truba is a great venue and we have the pole position. Two huge tables to seat twenty people are reserved for us – the look like an Oktoberfest bench; which turns out to be very appropriate. They start right next to the band and lead towards one corner of the U-shaped club. The bar is, of course, in the centre of the U and has three serving areas to cover everyone. Not that you ever visit the bar, like most places in Russia, table service is standard. It’s a fairly small venue, with seating space for about eighty people plus a dance floor in front of the band big enough for about fifteen people to get liggy with it. The walls have a variety of musically oriented pictures, paintings and objects mounted on them. These complement the odd instrument hanging from the ceiling. The wall next to the band’s corner is a classic red brick which leads your eye up to notice the exposed pipes and cabling that run around the room. The atmosphere is at once relaxed and energetic. And everyone here….especially the staff, are here to enjoy the night.

I look through the menu and I’m amazed to find Samogon listed as the most expensive vodka. I have no idea if it’s a brand name or real, but we start with a Ukrainian vodka on Lukash’s passionate recommendation that it’s spectacularly good. We all order rounds of beers and a bottle of vodka is procured for the people sitting near myself and Lukash. So it was that the session with the two Xaviers, Lari, Ryan, Lukash and myself was started. Lukash is completely right about the Ukrainian vodka, I make a note to tell Yana it is the best – and promptly forget. Ryan and Lari also order shots of espresso coffee to perk them up. We randomly bring in other people to make the toast and share in each round of vodka shots. Two bottles of vodka evaporate inbetween some dancing and carrying on – supporting the band in as raucous a fashion as we can. The whole group starts banging on the table in time with the music during a great song, which is received with huge smiles and encouragement from all the Russians in the bar. They join in, we get louder, the band get more enthusiastic and the night is airborne in just the way good nights are.

After the initial table thumping spectacular, during which a new group of Couchsurfers arrive, the Xavier who is across the table from me and myself began an exercise in synchronised hand clapping. Between table bashes we would clap each other’s hands (one or both) together across the table and continue. It only takes about ten attempts (and two songs) to get a good sequence going that has the whole room in laughter and applause. At the end of this we’re so exhausted that we have to order more vodka. Lari feels a visit to the toilet is in order and discovers she’s now trapped between the wall, the table and six people sitting on either side. She decides that crawling underneath the table is the quickest way to freedom. She surfaces unexpectedly between Xavier’s legs and pops up pretending to clean the edge of her mouth. Xavier immediately sits back looking relieved and happy and asks Lari if she has a cigarette.
“I’ll find one for you….loverboy”, she breathes huskily before touching his nose and swanning across the room.

More beers arrive and I wonder where Don and the other group have got to. I send him a message and he replies, “It’s a big mullfest back here.” Someone has brought some Altai grass along and they’re busy being incredibly naughty in the kitchen – much to Yana’s consternation. I tell him he’s missing out on the vodka session and that he should come join the growing group. Lari returns from her journey and another two beers follow her. The band kicks in again and the Xaviers leap up to dance at some length, cajoling everyone to join them. Five more Russian women arrive and form a committee next to the table. After they discuss it at some length they decide they doint want to struggle for room and will find us later. A Russian local, Lukash and I console ourselves with another bottle of vodka.

Don finally arrives and slowly Yana, Vanya, Olya and Marco waft in behind him. Apparently the stoner session has taken its toll on them all; they move slowly like they’re half awake. All except Yana, who is still upset and pointedly sits next to me and away from them,
“They were using MY kitchen! What if neighbours call police?”
“Is it that bad to have marijuana here?”, I ask curiously.
She looks askance at me,
“If police catch you, then huge fines…jail…”, she sputters, her normally exceptional English failing under stress, “…if you don’t bribe them enough and that is expensive.”
I think, like most Russians, they don’t have spare money to pay a bribe. I don’t imagine a Russian jail is somewhere you’d ever want to be and Yana’s terror of the idea is very real.
“In Australia you can have quite a lot on your person without a problem. They can choose to fine you, but if they’re not chasing you for something else, they won’t”, I offer, trying to distract her from the moment.
“Really? I thought it was the same everywhere?”
“Oh no, in most states you can grow two plants in your yard for yourself, you just can’t sell it to anyone.”
“Oh.”

Her eyes lose focus as she dreams of this foreign country. Until we’d arrived, Australia was just a name of somewhere a long way away. Now it’s becoming real in the way Russia is solidifying for me. Don orders another bottle of vodka and some beers and another session starts around him. Lari and Ryan are reluctantly joining in still. Well, by ‘reluctantly’ I mean they grab their shot glasses and push them towards Don when the pouring begins. Lari staggers off for another toilet mission and Ryan follows. I raise my eyebrow and wonder what evil is transpiring. I turn to find Lukash at the end of the table engaged in a lively conversation in Russian with a Russian man. The man then sits diagonally across the table corner and puts his arm up for a wrestle. I immediately move up next to Lukash to watch this bit of madness. Since Lukash spends all day using his good arm to move himself around on the skateboard, I know his upper body is solid muscle. I had already thought that I wouldn’t want to have to help him if he was drunk, he’d be way too heavy. I had actually also spent some time planning how I would balance him on the skateboard and still ride it myself. The picture of myself on a skateboard with a paralytic Lukash wedged between my legs, cruising down the streets of Russia (hopefully while I’m still holding a bottle of beer), will amuse me for years to come. Sadly the reverse is probably more likely to happen. A crazy polish guy dragging the body of a huge Australian down the road with a single rope tied around my belly and held in his teeth. Actually, I think he could probably do that.

In any case, by this time the Russian guy is leaning back with one foot on the table to get extra leverage and he still can’t shift Lukash an inch. I point out this is cheating and make him sit properly. The effect is instantaneous; the Russian guy has no chance as his hand hits the table. He then seems to start some argument and I’m getting worried this is going to get out of hand. A brief picture of a Russian pub brawl flashes through my mind and I instantly know it’s something I can happily live without seeing – let alone being at its epicentre. Lukash assures me it’s alright, it’s still friendly and soon after the guy engages in a lengthy handshake with our crazy pole before wandering into the night. We laugh together, share a vodka toast to Russian women and have some more beer. Don and I arrange for another bottle of vodka and some beers to arrive. Xavier is dancing up a storm in front of the band still and the night has clearly hit cruising altitude. I wonder if we will end up at a Russian street pub again and figure it’s pretty likely. The opportunity to run amok is upon us and we have two days before we get back on the train. I notice Lari and Ryan have been gone a very long time and start wondering what they’re up to exactly. Don mentions he’s going to the toilet and I ask him to check on them.
“I’m never one to stop people doing anything. Has she specifically asked us to do that?”, he asks seriously.
“Yes”, I lie cheekily.

He wanders off happily and Yana sits down next to me again. I’m forced to give her some vodka to celebrate the moment. We begin talking about the eclipse again and her eyes are filled with the inner light of inspiration. She also now understands why I had come so far to see it again and is determined to join us in China for the next one. I’m happy to have found two Russian eclipse sisters. I suppose along with the four wives, this is getting to be quite a collection!

Vortex Yulia reappears suddenly to tell me that Lari is completely paralytic in the toilets. Yulia had helped Don move her outside and he’s still with her, but they need more help to get her home; where she needs to be as soon as possible. Ryan also arrives back and pitches in to advise me he has just spent a bunch of time holding her hair and pushing chunks of vomit down the sink.
“I think she’s getting worse.”
With this status report I know I’m leaving soon, so I look around to see if I need to take anything. I hand Vortex Yulia the bottle of vodka and ask how to get it out of here. She shrugs and puts it in her handbag,
“You bought it. It’s yours to do with as you please.”
I extract a wad of cash from my moneybelt and give it to her to help sort out the bill. Then I grab my jacket and climb the stairs out of Truba. Don is sitting next to a new Lari who’s constructed entirely from molten rubber. He’s alternately getting her to wash her mouth out with water and leaning her forward so she can throw up on the pavement a little more.
“She’s hurling uncontrollably and constantly, not quite down to black bile yet, but well on her way.”
Both of us are very familiar with handling extremely drunk people, so we have developed a shorthand on placing what stage someone is at. Black bile is the line where we start to consider real medical attention. I suppose a part of this experience is having been in the same condition ourselves on the odd occasion. Strictly for scientific research you understand! Its not that we like being that drunk, we just prefer to base our knowledge on personal experience. Putting the pissed into ‘Epistemology’.

I take over from Don holding her up so he can go and sort out affairs inside. I sit down next to her in a huge windowsill and continue the regimen of washing and spewing for a short time before making her sit still leaning against me. I ponder what we will do and soon discover she’s lost control of her body; all her muscles are on holiday. A taxi is the only chance, but we need one that will handle her being this drunk. Vortex Yulia reappears and we talk about this, I ask her to bargain as much as she can and I’ll cover the cost. She strolls to the edge of the street and two cars later we have engaged an understanding driver from the Russian people’s taxi service.

The fare is larger than normal, but we aren’t going to be able to get Lari home any other way and there is some risk we’ll mess up his car. I carry her to the waiting vehicle and somehow manage to pour her into the back seat and sit her up next to me before she can be sick again. I’m so happy when Serbian Mario jumps in the front seat to direct the taxi driver; I quite literally have my hands full. I move her into a crouched position so I can put my arms around her to hold her body still with her head on my shoulder. This works a treat and she falls peacefully silent for the journey home. I manage to heave her out of the car and to the door. I’m now very happy the other Serbians had left earlier and are inside to open the door for us. I carry her up one flight of stairs, holding her across my body in my arms. A fireman’s carry would have been much easier, but I thought this would be the best way to not have her spew again. I then rest her bum on the banister and pant for a while with the effort. I then manage the second flight of stairs and rest again; unable to breathe. I wonder what I’m going to do when I see Ryan coming up the stairs behind me. I thank several gods and ask him if he can take her up the last flight and inside. He lifts her and I follow up the stairs.

Vortex Yulia comes up the stairs soon after him and follows us inside pointing at the bed in her room to put her on. She asks a few times if I’m going to be sharing with Lari tonight to look after her. I agree and ask if she has a bucket and a bunch of water handy. Lari falls very quiet lying on her side in bed breathing evenly and for the first time in about half an hour I relax and ask if we have any beer. Vortex Yulia is buzzing around and checks on everyone in the loungeroom. I smile watching our Siberian angel at work and miss Lari having a tiny dribble on the bed. I search for a rag as Vortex Yulia appears with a bucket and drinking water. I turn Lari towards the edge of the bed and she washes her mouth out a couple of times, spitting water happily into the bucket and starting to relax herself. She knows she’s home and safe and soon after passes into unconsciousness. I have a cigarette on the balcony and finish another beer before I’m calm enough to consider a shower. This was the first time one of us had been so far gone that outside help was required. I certainly wouldn’t have put money on our sensible Lari to be the one either. Don and I had pushed the limits in St Petersburg, both ending in a shocking state that deserved worse punishment. It was a good wakeup call for all of us. We’re in a foreign country and without help from our couchsurfing friends in handling the Russian people’s taxi driver we would have been in a much worse state.

What exactly were we trying to prove getting ourselves into this condition here?

Why are we still driven to excesses anyway?

I ponder that as I plan the excesses that might be possible for the next night.

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