“Ugh,” I gnawed my chapped bottom lip and thought back, back through all the morose and water-logged hours-- to the very beginning of the first excursion on our school trip to Siberia.
The eighth grade class’s expedition to Altai, the picturesque and mosquito-infested heart of Asia, had set off on an inauspicious note. We had forgone our warm beds, carefully hospital-cornered by our maids that afternoon, for the screaming discomfort of cheap-ticket night-flight seats. Our iPhone 7’s inevitably ran out of battery, and the convenience of those little charger outlets found in the frontmost rows of an upscale airplane were deplorably unavailable to us.
And the horrors didn’t end there. Our adolescent bodies --gone haywire from lack of sleep and technology-- were promptly swept onto a putrid bus and carted deep into the Siberian wilderness. There weren’t even commercial billboards among these graffitied cement houses!
But that was all past us now. It was time for our first excursion: horseback riding. We waded into the forest in a fog. Horses seemed to spring from the trees as our puffy red eyes adjusted. We gaped at the ragtag beasts as the teachers commenced the familiar counting ceremony (it accompanies every school trip) above our heads. Finally, to the tune of amused murmurs from my classmates accented with worried exclamations from our teachers, we came to the conclusion that we were missing a kid. One of our broad-faced tour guides bounded back to the disreputable bus. A few minutes later, our heads turned in synchrony to see the blinky-eyed left-behind emerge over the crest of a hill.
If I had been him, I thought atop my horse hours later, rainstorm-battered and worn down, I would have handcuffed myself to that bus.
Dark gray omens grumbled through the expansive Altai sky. The clouds were alive-- crackling. My horse’s ears in front of me made slow radar swoops, surveying her surroundings. I tried to remain hopeful that the storm would stay away-- but the dread sinking through my stomach like a stone demanded my attention. I put my index finger to the tip of my nose. My pointer carried away a treacherous half moon of liquid. I sighed. The rain had arrived.
And it rained. The way the pregnant drops pounded and splattered themselves onto our flimsy raincoats--emulating honey bees that throw their life into one excruciating sting-- it felt personal. What would make these baleful Siberian clouds leave us alone? A blood sacrifice? Please, it was the twenty-first century. A kid like me should have been curled up under the covers reading a book on a day like this. That was what I wanted. That was what I deserved. And yet the drops splashed on against my cranberry nose. Funny, it’s like life wasn’t fair or something.
A gnarled man at the head of our train of horses thrust out a hand and barked orders in Russian. His horse spooked, mane flinging water at the unfortunate riders nearby, then settled back into a passive haze, chomping drippingly on a jawful of thistle.
“He s-says we… we get off here,” one of my Russian-speaking classmates translated incredulously. Seriously? All I wanted was to get back to the loving embrace of a radiator. Get off the horse, they said? And halt our progress towards the camp? They’re kidding. They must be, I reassured myself. Yet there was the broad-faced tour guide again, reaching out a hand to help tear me away from the insulating wool saddle pad.
I stumbled on the slippy grass, then found my balance. I looked around at my floundering classmates. Something was fundamentally different, now that our uniform line had collapsed into a hectic gaggle: I no longer saw the backs of their heads. Instead, for the first time since mounting my scruff-saddled pony, I could see their faces. Their noses like overactive faucets. Their eyes vacant. Their mouths twisted to such an extreme you could tie a bag of bread with them. In equal words, they looked just as ecstatic to be in the middle of a Siberian rainstorm as I was.
Oddly --I couldn’t help it-- just then I had to stifle a laugh. We were miserable, and there was nothing we could do about it! In this Siberian austerity, there were no parents to complain to, no gadget to distract us from an uncomfortable reality. The twists of my classmate’s mouths intensified, then unravelled into pleasant arcs as they got the joke. It was simple, really. We had been moping this entire time. While horseback riding. Through a gorgeous meadow. In Siberia! How many kids would scrub toilets for an experience like this? Sure it was raining daggers, but we couldn’t have umbrellas. They’d spook the horses. The rain would spitefully pound our shoulders whether we were happy about it or not. The circumstances wouldn’t change, so that work was left to… our attitudes? For the first time on the entire trip, I stopped looking for ways to improve the situation. I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this is also when I began to genuinely enjoy the experience.
Meanwhile, our teachers had been bunching us together for a photograph. “Three, two, one-- Miserable!” My friends and I squealed in unison. A camera’s flash painted white spots onto our eyes. In the photo, nobody is preening, fussing with their hair or posing or positioning their face at the ideal fifty-nine-degree angle. It’s just our eighth grade class--hair plastered unbecomingly onto our foreheads, soaked clothes six shades darker than they were in the store, faces flushed and blotchy with the cold. All of us are grinning like lunatics.
One week later, I am standing by my locker, talking to a friend.
“We have so much homework,” I groan. I wrestle my backpack closed and hoist it onto one protesting shoulder.
“So much,” she agrees. I knock my knees theatrically under the weight of my school books. Just before I slam the locker door, I catch a glimpse of a photo pinned up on its inside. It is a copy of the picture taken one week ago while horseback riding in Altai. Reluctantly, I let an unfamiliar feeling squeeze into my head: thankfulness. Sure school can be stressful, but at least I am warm, and dry. If I could live through spending four hours in freezing rain with a thistle patch of a saddle between my knees, I can take on the challenge of doing tonight’s math worksheets with the luxury of a roof over my head. I flip through the homework packet. An alien problem that makes my stomach churn catches my eye. I smile. Good. A hellish horseback ride through the hills of Siberia made an impact on my life that would last long after the goosebumps marching across my arms had subsided into their usual sheets of pale, pampered skin.