a big beautiful mess

Elena Baikalova

This is the third installment in the Great Siberian Adventure series. A co-Fulbrighter and I spent two weeks in the summer of 2012 teaching English at a kids’ camp in Kyzyl, Tuva.

Our host and sponsor while we were in Kyzyl was Elena Dmitrievna Baikalova. Baikalova means “of Baikal” as in Lake Baikal, which is just the first of dozens of awesome things about her.

A. and I both liked Elena Baikalova immediately. Almost before we were out of the taxi, she was accosting the driver, demanding to know how much he’d charged us. Then, after introducing ourselves, she grabbed my suitcase and marched it up five flights of stairs in four-inch platform sandals as if it weighed nothing.

She was so energetic and no-nonsense and on top of her shit. She had been to America on some sort of program, to a bunch of cities (DC, Seattle, San Francisco, New York). A teacher in the English department at Tuvan State University, she was the contact person for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant named Riley who was there two years ago, and now she (almost) single-handedly runs this English language camp every summer. She has this way of deftly manipulating the system and all resources available to her to the best advantage of everyone in her sphere.

Elena is the kind of person who stays up until 2 am planning for the next day, and then runs around on her feet all day in four-inch platform shoes, and then does it again the next day. She’s the kind of person who, on our one day off, instead of resting, arranged an elaborate day trip to a nearby medicinal lake complete with barbecue and a huge picnic lunch.

Elena wore elegant fake eyelashes and immaculate makeup every single day, even at the beach. She spoke loudly, with conviction, which fooled us at first into thinking that everything she said was 100% true. When we began to notice that this wasn’t the case, we felt slightly betrayed until we realized that she was simply adapting effortlessly as information and circumstances changed without notice, as they are wont to do in Russia.

Every morning, when the children gathered for camp at a new school building, Elena stood in front of them, drill-sergeant style to give them the rundown for the day. Elena is the kind of person who plans morning announcements that require a microphone, but who doesn’t really need a microphone if it comes down to it. Nevertheless, when on the first day it turned out that there was no working plug outdoors, rather than give up, Elena climbed onto the roof of the building to dangle the microphone from an indoor plug in a second-story classroom.

And that was just the beginning.

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