Traveller's Notebook #3

Travel essays by Oleg Kolpashchikov,
President of White Cane NGO, visually disabled person

Inclusive Petersburg

St. Petersburg – Paris. Sails of Spirit, summer, 2016

We are sitting in the bow of the catamaran together with the Vice-President of the French Blind Association Valentin Haüy Marc Aufrant and arguing about how the blind can be useful in yachting and on this ship in particular. Mark and I are both blind, so for us it is very important to try to do as many new activities on our own as possible on the ship. It is interesting to handle the sails, it is interesting to stand at the wheel, Marc already tried it last night. Fortunately, boat captain Uldis Mezhulis from Latvia is supportive of such initiatives. It is not the first inclusive expedition with Uldis. Before we had sailed Baltic vastness a couple of times, in years ‘13 and ‘14 visited Estonia, Finland and Latvia. Today Uldis is accompanied by two sailing professionals and beginners in the field of inclusion. Edgar and Janis, both Latvians, are both “sailers” and SUV drivers.

We are discussing with Mark how seeing newcomer professionals try to help the blind sailors and do something for them in the first moments and hours. You go to the bow net, get down the ship side, and then suddenly someone offers you hand or tells you: Do not step in here!

But you already know this catamaran as the Lord’s Prayer. It is native to you. When you met with the Latvians late at night on the 30th June in a river club at Petrovskaya sand bar in St. Petersburg, you couldn’t resist and even kissed the board. “You” implies myself. Mark is also not new to yachting: he sails with us and he studied in Normandy in the 70s of the last century.

We are not fresh hands but Edgar and Janis are novices exactly in inclusion. And I remind Mark that we practice inclusion rather than yachting. I start to explain the process in words. You are blind, you know everything on the yacht, you had already tried steering the boat and sailing, you had prepared food and washed up. And then you want to do it all again but also to try something more further. And it seems to you that only the profs from the Latvian seamen team should explain what to do.

But I explain to Mark: look at the situation through the eyes of yachting professionals and inclusion novices, namely through the eyes of Janis and Edgar. Inclusion is first of all interaction and communication. And two parties are involved in this communication. Moreover, the “normal”, seeing side is used to building vast majority of communication catching sight, synchronizing actions through “facing”, eye interaction, facial expressions, etc. For a professional sailor it is clear that any action on a yacht can be extremely dangerous so one should be sure that your team partner understands you. But he is not accustomed to receiving such feedback through voice, through movements, as the blind. He’s looking for some confirmation in the eyes, in facial expression, but, of course, does not find it. To gained confidence in cooperation, he needs confidence in mutual understanding. He needs new tools hidden of feedback tracking. This requires time.

Mark agrees, adding great words that cooperation confidence comes after much practice rather than after theoretical training.

After explaining to Mark I run to my laptop to start sketches of another inclusive voyage which started yesterday, July 2nd, in St. Petersburg. I’m writing down in the cabin, accompanied with my favorite Lover, so to speak. It’s raining outside. On the upper deck there are Uldis, Janis, Edgar and Anastasia Harlamtseva. Elena Kovaleva is warming the soup cooked yesterday on the occasion of departure. Grisha Glyantsa is mounting the video of the expedition start in St. Petersburg. Perhaps we’ll also call the video Inclusive Petersburg.

We met Grisha on June 29th, in Moscow, in the evening at the Leningrad railway station when getting on the Red Arrow train. Grisha is a novice in sailing. He had found our project on his own and, in my opinion, is planning to make a documentary about the expedition. Gregory turned out to have two nationalities and experience as pastry cook in a kosher restaurant. A record like that indicates that he is not an odd person in The Sails of Spirit. Surprisingly, Grisha manages several things at once: helping with food cooking and at the same time being constantly around videotaping.

I live in the same compartment with Grisha. Of course, last night was really the fire baptism for him. He had not had time to fall asleep before I began snoring and was being tormented half the night. In the morning he complained that when he had finally fallen asleep he dreamt of being killed. There is no salvation neither in dream nor in reality is the motto of the last night.

For a professional sailor it is clear that any action on a yacht can be extremely dangerous so one should be sure that your team partner understands you. But he is not accustomed to receiving such feedback through voice, through movements, as the blind.

Zhenya Malyshko, a blind guide from the capital, and German Naklonyaev, another newcomer of the Sails, a drummer from Yekaterinburg, joined the train to Moscow. The Red Arrow is not, in our opinion, a real train: toilets, made beds, sets chew-at-night and porridge in the morning right in the compartment. It differs from the train Chita – Moscow where you have to go jogging through the near-Baikal stations in search of grilled chicken.

The Red Arrow has brought us in the morning right to the Nevsky prospect in St. Petersburg, where a wonderful 7-person rented apartment was waiting for us in the house 88. Believe it or not, I do not know it myself, but a taxi driver who took us out of the house to the yacht club early on the 2nd July, told us that Boris Grebenshchikov – a maitre of Russian rock and idol of a substantial part of our team – lives next door. If we had known about this on our arrival! It is unlikely that anything would have changed!

Early in the morning we were joined by Lena Kovaleva and Nastya Harlamtseva who had arrived with heaps of things from Yekaterinburg. We have a day to prepare for the events to be held on July 1st and 2nd in St. Petersburg. I would like to call and to invite as many disabled people and people without disabilities as possible to the city tour, to a meeting in the library for the blind and, of course, to the inclusive rock-concert. I ask Malyshko to call up everyone from the St. Petersburg Blind Association, friends and journalists, etc. I ask to invite musicians to the concert in art-cafe Africa. I try frantically to recall those from St. Petersburg whom I know and whom I can call. I understand that, despite the fact that the Sails were in St. Petersburg 2 years ago, we don’t have special friends and partners there. What a shame!

I remember that last time I was told that there is a blind hotel keeper in St. Petersburg. I ask Zhenya Malyshko to find him through her own blind agent network. I remember about Vladimir Sigidov – a blind man we contacted with about a year and a half ago. He wanted to come to Yekaterinburg for the regatta. I dial his number. He says that he will stay in St. Petersburg until this night, that is, the 30th June. He offers meeting right in the evening. Good or, as they say, Okay. Vladimir asks me where we are staying. When he learns that we are on Nevsky, 88, he is delighted: Excellent! I’m on Nevsky, 122. In general, within walking distance. We agreed to meet at about 7 p.m. When we walked from under the arch on Nevsky prospect with Zhenya and Gregory Glyantsa we felt immediately the real St. Petersburg spirit: there were both rock‘n’rollers and Greek restaurant touts in the surrounding merry crowd. I dialed Vladimir and he said that reaching the house 122 we should enter the hotel Neva Beach. I hang up, keep walking along the Nevsky, and then suddenly everything fits together. Petersburg, a hotel, a blind man … Of course, we’re going to the very man we were looking for: a blind hotel keeper.

And now we are sitting in the basement of the hotel, in the restaurant which has been recently dug out and established by Vladimir. We share our love for sailing, for travelling and activities. We discuss that being blind, it is difficult to work, after all but it is still possible. And the “extrability” are of great help there – the blind who don’t stop and who have pushing insistence that Vladimir first identified as hard work.

Vladimir tells about his fate, about how he came from the Blind Association into the business and tells about his dream – to make a sailing club for the blind. I, in my turn, tell about the World Congress for the disabled in Yekaterinburg, about the new magazine “Homo inclusive” in the next issue of which Vladimir’s story will be printed. I tell him that the hero of the current issue of the magazine, Marc Aufrant is landing in Pulkovo airport right at this moment. We look at each other and do not believe in the reality of the situation. We agree to meet tonight at ten o’clock on the rooftop of the hotel.

In the apartment, at home already, I tell Marc about the fantastic meeting with Sigidov. Marc, in turn, tells me the news that another blind young man 28 years old wants to go sailing with us this year. We quickly snack on sandwiches from Grigory and rush to the roof. The roof of the Nevsky shore … There is something in it… “Inclusive Petersburg” on the roof of the Nevsky shore!

Right now, as I am writing, Nastya is drawing water from the lower shelves in the kitchen with a mug. It’s raining heavily, and water is flowing at the point where gas hose passes through the kitchen. Opposite me, Grigory is mounting the first video about the movement in St. Petersburg.

And then, on top of the hotel in the center of St. Petersburg, we quickly and accurately made friends with Volodya and his wife Marina who is imbued with the ideas and sentiments of sailing and expeditions, too. At the end of the holiday, all our inclusive international team went in taxi to meet the dear Lover with Uldis and colleagues to a noisy night half-glamorous, half-alcoholic yacht club at Petrovskaya Spit. Uldis and his team received hot meal, we received a glass of Riga balsam for the meeting. When my feet felt the dear ladder of Lovera and my hand felt Uldis’s shoulder and, kissing the board of the catamaran, I was standing inside the cockpit I felt another attack of that mixture of happiness and sense that we really do something and we get it.

We hurried back to Nevsky to be in time before raising the bridges. We slipped across one of them just a minute before its raising. St. Petersburg’s Nevsky spirit plus inclusion. We’re inflating our sails with this spirit!

This time the name question was especially popular. We had to explain this metaphor created (or born) in 2011, when Burlakov and we all just started it. The spirit, the wind, the environment – it all exists in the nature and inside us. It depends on you whether the yacht will travel and where will it go. The wind pushes the sail, the sail rests upon the mast, the mast goes off of the water with the keel, and the yacht travels to the new shores. When you set the sail, it is important that these environment forces coincide with your movements and dreams. The same is true with a man — it’s kind of spirit, something sail-like, capable of uniting tremendous energy and aspirations.

Morning on July, 1. The weather is wonderful: it’s hot and windy. Together with Grigory, Zhenya, Nastya and Mark we are going to a guided tour to Haüy’s places in Mikhailovsky castle. Directly along Nevsky prospect, to the right towards the Fontanka, and we’re near the castle. Aliya, a blind novice journalist from St. Petersburg, joins our excursion, as well as a representative of the Sails’ new partner, Yury from Leningradskaya atomic power station in Sosnovy Bor. We blindfold Yury and Grigory in the arch at the fortress entrance, then the guide begins the tour.

Let me remind you that Haüy was one of the first to start teaching blind people in Paris at the end of 18th century; he organized workshops and created the three-dimensional alphabet. By the way, the alphabet issues in those days were relevant not only for the blind. In those days, a simple alphabet and grammar rules varied greatly not only in different nations, they differed even in different people. Haüy was a member of the state commission dealing with uniform rules of writing documents in French. At one time he was a professor and translator of the King. So, after being disgraced in the days of Napoleon, Haüy arrived in St. Petersburg at the invitation of Alexander 1 creating similar workshops and training Institute for the blind, now in St. Petersburg, in 1806.

First, he was granted a merchant’s house for these purposes where the successful work began. Then, after the departure of Haüy, the following occurs: the castle, Paul I where was killed and which was found unfit for the reign, was used for the military school and … Attention! – a Blind Institute with its workshops and a music school was assigned to this college.

And then, under the sun of Petersburg, right in the center of the castle I realized what a brilliant inclusion had been built in, screwed into the process of training of the officers. I was amazed and excited at the same time. It is difficult to imagine who had had such an idea and how it had occurred to him. I would like to think that it was not without Haüy’s covenants. But I want to believe that the Russian head was involved in it. I would like to think that this, of course, had passed through the royal family. But such inclusion is brilliant! Who but the military and the disabled could better share inclusion with each other? And where should it be but in the center of the capital, in the former royal palace? The idea is not in the luxurious apartments but in importance with which the process was treated. We will do it again on a new level!

We were running across Petersburg on the tour in inclusive pairs and triples. Yuriy and Aliya, Nastya, Marc and I, Zhenya rushed forward with Grigory. The taxis diasppeared because of traffic jams and we were rushing to the subway to arrive in time at the presentation in the Library for the Blind. Half an hour of running to the subway station across the hot city, then the subway to the library where Lena was waiting for us with the prepared branded clothes with logos of the Sails of Spirit, partners and Congress. Marc on the run finds in his mind a new view of Russia’s northern capital. At the meeting in the library, he says that he had prepared to travel to the northern city, and he felt as if he had arrived in one of the Mediterranean capitals, for example, he compared Petersburg with Rome.

Zhenya began the meeting with the press and the blind establishment. We run across the disk-like Northern Palmyra.

It is a pity of course, that few people attended the presentation on that hot day. But there gathered those who had to gather. Most of the audience and – it is great to know – the blind ones were on board the catamaran the next morning and participated in the sailing to Kronstadt. Olga, director of the St. Petersburg library, in her turn, also gave us a few precious minutes of her time and we met together in her office with Marc Aufrant. We discussed very optimistic plans for collaboration and future interchange of St. Petersburg and Paris interconnected by the story of the great Valentin Haüy. Surprisingly, employees of special libraries are at the forefront of innovation and at the top of integration of the blind today.

It is a pity that not all the plans are realized, and a teleconference with a library of Sevastopol failed due to the our schedule. We had agreed in advance with Sasha Lazareva, our activist and employee of Sevastopol library, that we would invite the Crimeans and the Sevastopol people in person to the day of inclusion in September. But alas! Sorry! We will do it now.

We invite you, dear colleagues from Sevastopol and the Crimea, to the day of inclusion in Yekaterinburg. In Yekaterinburg from 15th to 18th September, there will be held a round table on implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons in the “bottom-up” way, an open championship of Sverdlovsk region on inclusive sailing, a festival Inclusive Art dedicated to the opening of registration on the World Congress of the Disabled in 2017! We are waiting for you as well as for all our friends and colleagues from other Russian regions and countries of the world.

The speciality of this Congress is that it is already underway in different corners of the country and the world. On July 1st, it took part in St. Petersburg.

After the visit to the library, activities continued. Our international team moved to the inclusive art-cafe “Africa” on Ligovskiy prospect. There we were met by high-quality inclusive blood-pumping Russian rock ‘n’ roll by Vladimir Rudakov who had arrived from Petrozavodsk, German Naklonyaev from Yekaterinburg; a few days before the concert, they were joined by the band of Foma Egorychev. They played from sight, and it was cool, despite the time being three hours p.m.

Ilya Kartashov, the cellist who had supported German’s and Volodya’s rock gladly accepted the invitation to sail on the boat to Kronstadt. And not just sail but also make inclusive rock acoustics right on board underways.

Anya Fomina has come to the café Africa to act and support the concert. She sailed with the crew of Lover two years ago from Helsinki to Riga, and in both cities she sang Irish songs playing guitar blindly. It was nice to meet with Anya.

Somehow we had forgotten to warn the director of Art Café that Volodya would arrive in a wheelchair, and a couple of musicians from the following group would be blind, and that there would also be some so-called special people in the audience. Somehow you do not remember that this should be focused. Zhenya Malyshko was organizing a simple concert.

Finally the day of sailing from St. Petersburg has come starting a two-month expedition. Finally we’re getting loaded on board the Lover tired from the night “weddings” in the yachting club. Edgar is repeating like a mantra the hit title which, everyone sang in karaoke all night like a mantra in different ways and degrees of drunkenness.

On Saturday morning the silence reigns, we are alone in the boat. But then there begin to gather our old and, what is nice, new friends, with disabilities and without them, invited at various meetings. There came the journalists whom Zhenya immediately began touring through the catamaran blindfolded. There came the blind which I guided on a tour and who do not need a bandage.

Every time you remember that there are many people not familiar with what you know in life, and that you should infinitely share things that perhaps became commonplace for you. The tour of the catamaran is joy for a seeing beginner and opening of a new world for a blind, just as a flight into space. Who would think to familiarize a blind with yacht design? Who would answer the question of the head of one of the best-known charity funds: Why would a blind need a yacht? One boat tour, and a person who had not been shown anything good in practice now “sees” a different attitude of the world to himself. They just start to treat him as a human, not as a patient. Actually, blindness is not a disease; it is a significant change of attitude towards life and if properly organized, towards better life.

We sailed away from the pier accompanied with the sounds of interviews that sailing participants were granting in different parts of the spacious cockpit.

Lover was built for divers, and central cockpit was left open, without cabin. And this form, the most ideal one could imagine, served for our humanitarian mission. With a crew of 9 people, we take on board up to 40 people for short sailings and meetings. When sailing to Kronstadt, there were 25 of us. Almost everyone we expected had come. Unfortunately, Tamara, our volunteer translator whom we do not know in person, had not came. She did not find the yacht club. It’s a shame, but we will surely meet with you, Tamara. I know.

In the afternoon of July 2nd, Lover was sailing along the Neva. Malyshko replaced Uldis at the wheel. We are getting acquainted with the newcomers, and newcomers were also getting acquainted with the ship. Rudak was preparing himself for the main surprise. Lena and Nastya were treating people with sandwiches. People were looking for seats in the shade of the mainsail called “grot” in the Russian tradition.

And here comes the main thing!

Ilya with the cello asks me to change seats, Herman takes the drum, Rudak takes the guitar. His wife Larissa makes herself comfortable opposite them with the camera, sitting on the floor and resting her back against the knees of a new acquaintance. Rudak starts playing and singing, Ilya switches on the bass, first a little relaxed, then confident and beautiful. Cello and rock ‘n’ roll is truly awesome! German is playing percussion in a semiconscious creative frenzy. We, all the listeners, are in “spiritual ecstasy,” if you can say so. When I my ability to understand what’s happening around returns, I see that we have done something again. Either pride, or joy, or some delight is rising… of course, I have thought about it recently. This feeling of great without which nothing happens in the Russian mentality. It is not so much the pursuit of quality as the desire of the great; be part of the great; to feel that you had taken part in it and let it happen first in your mind and then in reality.

The Northern Trio, as we called them, was singing, the people on board were freezing and returning to life again, continuing to chat. At the end of the sailing, I stood at the rail, seeing off the seeing and the blind, embracing those whom I could touch. Volodya was carried past me in a wheelchair; he said goodbye on the fly. Zhenya is happy as usual because of the events and mournful from leaving. All the happily-delightfully and sadly charged inclusive “mob” moved to roam along Kronstadt.

And we are now mooring near the first Finnish yachting club 20 miles from Helsinki. The air smells of pine trees. Cool fresh air. Onboard the sound of mounted ladder… Somewhere in the sky, a plain is flying… Beauty, in short.

Tomorrow morning Vladimir Rudak will rise our board for the second time and we will be sailing to the “Finnish land”, believing in the new miracles.

Thank you, Petersburg, and good-bye!

Sunday, the 3rd July, on board the catamaran Lover, yachting club Tirmo Saaristokeskus, Tirmontie 611

To be continued.

Special thanks to Victoria Valeryeva for editing, and Tamara Agafonycheva for translating the text into English.

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