Hopefully the brunt of the national emergency has passed and life, as we knew it, has returned to normal. Yesterday, Dan and I watched perhaps the most spectacular downpour outside our windows for over 45 minutes. This thunderstorm was not particularly special, but simply came as a sign of relief from the intense smoke and heat plaguing the city this past week. Moscow's been affectionately titled "The Cauldron of Hell" by reporters sent to cover the record-setting summer here and we were affectionately beginning to agree. We've never seen rain with more grateful eyes.
Moscow has been shrouded in smoke from forest fires raging all over Russia due to combustible peat moss igniting during the hottest summer Russia's seen in hundreds of years. This smoke seeped into the city somewhat imperceptibly. I remember waking up early one morning a few weeks ago convinced something in the apartment had caught on fire. After a quick walk-through and closer examination of our outlets and appliances, I figured the incredibly pungent smell must be coming from outside and went back to bed. Days later, thick clouds of this smoke began to accumulate over the city. Due to wind direction and the sheer size of the fires spreading in all directions around Moscow, the smog settled over the city for days on end. It has been reported that one day while 230 fires were extinguished outside Moscow, 250 new fires were discovered; the problem escalated faster than help could be administered. And the effects of such were quickly and poignantly apprehended by all Moscow residents.
Medvedev made various statements during this time, first calling attention to the State of Emergency, urging Moscovites to travel away from the city if possible, to cease all and any unnecessary work, and to stay indoors as much as possible, seeking refuge in shelters or even shopping malls throughout the city. Typically locking down at home would not be a difficult thing to do, our water was running, we had plenty of food and other supplies, but with temperatures well above 100 degrees outside and no access to any kind of cool or fresh air, the temperature of our apartment never dropped below 90 degrees that entire week. We even realized the futility of our one oscillating fan as the air simply got warmer. A general sense of weariness, nausea, headache, sinus pain, dehydration, shortness of breath, and body ache seemed to be related either to the influence of the smoke or the lack of relief from the heat, perhaps both. The necessity to constantly drink more fluids seemed obvious as every place you sit is wet from sweat after just minutes. We felt like we were losing water as quickly as we consumed it - now imagine how our apartment began to smell after the first 24 hours! Reminiscent of high school cross country practice in the wrestling gym... not a pretty picture :) I'd like to give you a glimpse into our lives during those days as we lived through an unexpected but accurately titled "State Emergency."
10:00 pm - Begin filling the bath tub with cold water for the pre-bed soak. Dan and I each took a long cold bath before bed. The unnerving thing about this practice involved getting out of the tub and feeling the heat of the objects surrounding you. The floor is hot on your feet. Your towel is hot. The books you touch are warm, each page is hot to turn. Of course this is not because these particular objects are that hot to the touch, but your body temperature has been significantly lowered. The cold bath became an essential part of our sleeping routine, it gave us a good 2-3 hours of cool with which we could fall asleep.
1:00 am - Head to bed. The apartment is just slightly cooler, perhaps 90 rather than 95, in the night hours, so we adjusted our schedule to head to bed later in order to maximize our time in "cooler" temperatures. We'd soak two towels with cold water and lay them over us, positioning the fan to blow directly on us all night. The cold towels worked incredibly well. I think we got that idea from my dear and amazingly traveled cousin, Molly, who told me about sleeping techniques in India during her time there in the hot summer. Wow, things you think you'll never need to know when moving to Russia!
4:00 am - Wake up sweltering! At this point, the towels are already completely dry and your body has been working overtime to warm itself after the cold bath and towels. It's hot and stuffy, perhaps even a bit claustrophobic. At this point in the night we'd re-soak the towels and try to go back to sleep. Typically, though, sleep wouldn't come easily so we'd either opt for a cold shower, or depending on the look of the smog that morning, don our masks and walk outside for no more than 10 minutes to try to cool down. Waiting for sleep to come again felt a little like the "Zombie Phase." You feel like you're always only half there, just hoping to fall back asleep, but physically unable to do so. Lots of iced water and books were consumed during these restless hours. However... how much of those things we remember might be a more appropriate sign of our level of consciousness.
6:00 am - Back to sleep for a few more hours.
8:00 am - Wake up to ice coffee in the fridge and smoothies with frozen strawberries and bananas, yogurt and orange juice. Nothing like a chilly morning treat to begin the day. I got a blender for my birthday in July and we've made daily use of it ever since. Thanks, Dan, great gift!
9:00 am - Depending on the plan for the day, this might be the appropriate time for a morning cold bath.
10:00 am - Out the door! Taking Medvedev's advice, we switched into survival mode. We would put on our "Anti-Smog Masks," available for sale, even given out at almost any store in Moscow, and every day we ventured somewhere new in search of the coolest and cheapest places available to us in the city. Staying at home for another 100+ degree day with no relief from the stuffiness and congestion of the air was not an option! We're so thankful for the Beyar family here in Moscow who took us in two days in a row to their air conditioned apartment just ten minutes away. We packed books, games, and even exercise gear for our day-trips there. At one point there were over 18 people in their apartment seeking refuge at the hospitable and generous hands of the Beyar family. Not only did they allow us entry, but Lori had baked ziti waiting for us and snacks to last the day. From their view on the 13th floor, we marveled that the massive sky-scrapers surrounding us were completely blanketed and invisible through the smoke. I'd never seen anything like it before - and no end in sight. We stayed at the Beyars until we felt like the warning of Proverbs 25 begin to take effect: "Seldom set foot in your neighbor's house - too much of you, and he will hate you." We wouldn't want to wear out our welcome so quickly during a national emergency with no immediate end in sight!
We similarly ventured to malls around the city, or places we knew we could find free seating in cooler conditions. Typically we would stay until the mall or facility closed. We certainly were not shopping for pleasure, but simply looking for relief. I'm not really sure how effective the "Anti-Smog Masks" actually are in this kind of smoke, but we did laugh at ourselves and the people around us embracing, as best we could, the encouragement we received to wear them. We saw this kind of thing fairly frequently - I guess some are more particular than others about the kind of smoke one should ingest...
10:00 pm (or thereabouts) - Arrive back home again and immediately start filling the tub with cold water
Needless to say, it was not an experience I ever expected to have in Moscow, Russia. As we are currently enjoying day 2 of relief from the smoke due to wind change and the storm which passed through last night, we are earnestly praying that the smoke will not return. Sadly, many have not been as fortunate as to enjoy the cool homes of generous friends, or cannot travel easily through the city, and this "State of Emergency" has brought a tragic and abrupt end to many lives. Several homes and lives have been lost in the fires raging outside the city and it's at this point difficult to ascertain the economic aftermath of this kind of devastation. Please join us in praying for Russia, for rain, for relief, for restoration.