Campfire diplomacy in Russian Siberia

ShareAmerica intern Zoe Swarzenski, a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, wrote this after visiting Lake Baikal in the mountainous Russian region of Siberia.

My friend Evan pressed “play” exactly at midnight, the white glow from her iPod screen competing with the softer orange light of the campfire in front of us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22 …

The song playing was Taylor Swift’s ode to young adulthood, which is something of an anthem for American millennials. The lyrics transform an unexciting age into an identity, the uncertainty of youth into a celebration.

Evan and I were thousands of miles from our American peers. We were on a research trip to Lake Baikal with 10 other students and three professors from our college in Massachusetts. We had learned earlier that day that one of our translators, a Russian student named Kolya, was about to turn 22. We knew immediately that playing this song would be the perfect way to celebrate.

The song set the tone for that night and cemented what became a steadfast friendship among us, students from different continents with traits more different than similar.

It was the summer of 2016, and my group was living at the lake for a month. Our mission was twofold: to study the lake’s ecosystem and to steep ourselves in the local culture.

Our scientific research focused on the effects of eutrophication (excessive algae growth caused by human activity) on Baikal, one of the world’s most precious lakes. Our goal for cultural understanding was harder to define. But it depended upon Kolya and another student, Vitya, both of whom attend Irkutsk State University. For that month, they lived in an adjacent cabin and served as our translators.

We expected a language barrier, but not the cultural differences that began to pop up as soon as we got off the plane. Who should grab the bags? (We all tried.) Is it okay to sit on the ground? (Depends on who you ask.)

But such differences began to seem small on the lakeshore that night.

People sitting by campfire (Zoe Swarzenski)
American and Russian students share memories and songs around a campfire near Lake Baikal. (Zoe Swarzenski)

Kolya and Vitya built a fire. We played the guitar and sang, sharing the songs we grew up with. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in such a situation — no cell service, no television, nothing connecting us to the outside world. At school back home, surrounded by technology, I manage relationships on social media — expressing my affection with virtual “likes.”

That night, focused only on the friends around me, I reminisced about childhood. I was making friends the way I did as a girl: with smiles, shared toys (songs, in this case) and a kindergarten vocabulary.