Birobidzhan - The Search for a Room
Ten years ago, when Gary and I were in Birobidzhan, we ran into some trouble with the law. The police came poking around one day while we were out, asking our hosts, Maya and Sasha, about the American journalists they heard were there. Maya and Sasha were understandably freaked out -- we hadn't officially registered our visas to stay in the apartment -- and Gary and I had to flee like a couple of desperados.
We raced to the only place we could think of -- the apartment of an American missionary family we met a couple of days earlier -- and told them we needed a place for the night, leaving out the part about the police being hot on our trail. Not our finest moment, clearly.
I somehow lost Maya and Sasha's telephone number after that first trip, and even if I could track them down, they might not be too happy to see me anyway. So this time around, we decided to play it safe and rent a hotel room. But on Friday, when we called from Khabarovsk, we discovered that there were no rooms at the Vostok Hotel and none at the smaller Nadezhda hotel either. Oops! We were supposed to leave for Birobidzhan on Saturday and now we had no place to stay.
Yulia leapt into action, haranguing the woman who'd been unfortunate enough to answer the phone at the Nadezhda hotel for a good ten minutes. Wasn't there any place the Americans could stay? Another hotel? A private apartment somewhere? "These journalists are flying in from New York to do a story on Birobidzhan!" she insisted. "There must be some place they can stay!"
That did it. A woman who worked at the hotel said she had a one-room apartment near the center of town that was available. If we told her what time we were arriving in Birobidzhan, she'd meet us at the train station and take us there. What a relief! True, it felt a bit strange agreeing to stay in the apartment of a random stranger, but what were our other options?
We arrived on Saturday night, and Raisa Borisovna met us as promised. She walked us to an austere apartment block near the station, and as we lugged our bags up the dank staircase, I felt for the first time on this trip like I was right back in 1995. Our apartment is spartan but clean, with the kind of white lace curtains and blocky, Soviet-style furniture that once decorated most homes across Russia. But in the biggest throwback to those olden days, it has no phone.
It took us half of Sunday to find Birobidzhan's only Internet "café": a small, stuffy room lined with computer screens and packed with boys playing online video games. We'll send our updates from there, or via the satellite equipment we've brought. Our goal now is to find out how the Jewish community is faring in Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region.
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