Abhinandan Sharma writes about the realisation of his dream — an internship programme of AIESEC in Russia
December 28, 2011 : As I stood in front of the gates of the Russian Embassy in New Delhi staring down at the words (cultural ties) КУЈІЬТУРНЬІе СВЯЗИ visa printed on the middle page of my passport, I felt an overwhelming feeling of joy and adrenalin rush. I stood still calming myself to let the feeling sink in. The feeling was borne out of a combination of frustration I had to endure during the endless loop of errands to the recognized agency and the Embassy and joy at finally having achieved my visa. The dream was on. The dream – an internship programme in Russia.
What would you say if you had an opportunity to do a month long winter internship programme in a place with an average winter temperature of -20°C ?? Well, this winter, that is January 2012, I had such an opportunity when I, along with my friend, Amlan Kashyap, was selected to do an Internship programme in Novosibirsk, Russia. And I said “bring it on”..!! A quick Google search about Novosibirsk told me it was the third largest Russian city, located in the Siberian region and with a very cold winter. And I quickly found telling myself “If I am going to go to a cold place, why not make it one of the coldest I will ever visit ??”
The internship was an AIESEC programme under Novosibirsk State Technical University (NSTU), and my project was called the ‘You Are Not Alone (YANA)’ project. The main objectives were to spread cultural awareness among students from different countries. Students from countries like Brazil, Portugal, Singapore, Australia, India etc were selected to be interns and interns were to give lectures and presentations about their countries and cultures, share their experiences, arrange seminars and discussion and interactive sessions. Also a part of our project included visiting orphanages in Novosibirsk and arrange presentations about our countries and also share our experiences with them.
An important thing about AIESEC is that internships under it are all arranged by students. So although we were going to an AIESEC programme under NSTU, everything about the project from drawing up its objectives to selecting interns were done by students of NSTU. Each intern was to stay with a student of the university (who would be our host) and our host was supposed to be our friend and aide in everything we needed during our stay in Russia. Everything about the project excited me.
One thing I learned the hard way about Russia is that it’s a country where they don’t use English. And only a few people (and that would mostly be the students ) could speak proper English. When I landed in Moscow I quickly realized everything including the sign boards and directions were written in Russian. And I didn’t know a word in Russian !! And the only person I met who could speak English (it was early morning and the airport was practically empty) was a cab driver (yeah of all the people) and he duped us into paying him double the rate for a 10 minutes ride. And later we realized we could have changed terminals without the taxi (well obviously the taxi driver had told us it was quite a distance) !!
Moscow was cold, there was snow on the streets but it was nothing like what we were about to experience. After travelling through a thick cloud, when our flight emerged to give us the first view of Siberia, I was terrified and astounded at the same time. I was looking down at a white mass, and it was some time before I realized it was all snow. Everything was covered in snow. I looked at my friend and asked “are we going to make it a month there (pointing at the snow below)” and all he said (with wide eyes) was “brace yourself”..!! A Russian girl sitting just beside my friend looked at me, smiled and said “Welcome to Siberia”. Well the images from up there certainly didn’t look to welcoming..!!
In our project me and my friend Amlan, were the last among the interns to arrive, as we were held up by our exams and visa processing. At the airport a huge crowd was awaiting us. I recognized our project president (Dasha Momotenko) and my host, Alexey Nagaysatsev, from my skype interactions. A quick thing about Russian names here : they are repetitive, like most boys would be Alexeys or Andrews while most girls Dasha’s or Ekaterina’s..!! By the end I had met so many Alexeys I totally lost count. I knew all the other Interns and the Russians in our project by name and they knew us (well it’s a small world with facebook) so introduction was just a mere formality. Dasha gave me and my friend a hug and said .Welcome guys ! what a day to reach Russia (it was new years eve) plus its warm tonite.. The digital meter just behind her read -10°C. I thought she was joking and I asked “warm ??” she smiled “just stay a month guys you’ll understand.” Then, I didn’t know what to make of that..!!
Everybody seemed friendly and we were ushered into the groups usual topics of discussions almost instantly and even before I had set a foot outside the airport I felt at home. These people they seemed like old friends. The fun had begun.
My first feeling about Novosibirsk ?? Cold. Very cold. The moment I stepped out of the airport, a cold wave hit me, that penetrated my two pronged anti cold defense (a full sweater and a big jacket !! ). My feet was on ice, which was about 5 cm thick and had settled on the pavement. As I took my first breath, the air felt fresh but it was so cold it sent shivers down my spine. As I awaited our bus, I felt unable to pronounce words properly (my jaws were stuck due to the cold) and Maya (an Indian girl from Singapore) looked at me sympathetically and said “don’t worry, you will get used to it.” I hoped. I had an amazing first night with the new year celebrations running all night. The next morning was when I shifted to my host, Alexey’s place. Alexey was an amazing person. An electronic engineering student from NSTU (into his 2nd year), friendly and matured enough to give me my space. Every night he would teach me to play the guitar, we would cook our food together (he taught me a lot of Russian dishes too), we would watch movies and more importantly he would teach me the Russian language. At least enough Russian so that I could manage my way through the metro station, read the signs or order my food in the restaurant. My stay in Russia was sweet, Alexey made it sweeter. Formally our project started only from the 8th of January, as officially it was a holiday for the first seven days of the year. But us interns, along with our project coordinators, we would have discussion and fun sessions. We got to know each other better. Our group had students from Brazil, Portugal, Singapore, Australia, the Russians and us the two Indians. At some point it would so happen that people from different countries would start to chat in their respective native languages like the Brazilians in Portugese, the Russians in Russian or us in Assamese and suddenly somebody would shout “Everybody in English please”, we would all laugh and the group discussions would resume in English..!! I soon found out that the city was filled with interns. There were a lot of other projects running in parallel under AIESEC NSTUand you would be as likely to meet an intern on the street as an Russian student..!! Incidentally me and my friend met two other Indian guys, a boy from Noida and a girl from Delhi, working in a different project, and we formed our own little Indian community in Russia
Once the project started our experience changed into another dimension, a more serious one at that ! The seminars and the presentations were fun. In my first presentation, after a lengthy lecture I showed everybody a clip of the latest ‘Incredible India’ ad and suddenly a lot of people were interested to visit India. There would be new topic for everyday and not necessarily always cultural. We could chip in with our own ideas too. We were also free to attend university classes and visit the laboratories. We visited seven orphanage during our stay and we would generally meet kids in the age group 15-18 years. This part of our project was something that really touched me. Listening to their point of view was like looking at the society from inside out. An experience that I will always remember. We would also have AIESEC meetings where people from different projects would meet up. This gave us an opportunity to meet with more people from different countries. The best part would be when the interns would all sit together and discuss about their countries, cultures and experiences. I would often find myself engrossed in long drawn political discussions about our respective countries with other interns. By the end of the month I realized how much I had gained, not academically, nor in terms of my Engineering coursework but something as valuable in life, experience. You can only learn as much from the internet, but what you learn about the world by meeting and talking to different people is incomparable.
Every day of my month long stay had something in store. The entire group had a vibrant energy and the cold never stopped us. We became so used to temperature of -30°C that anything below -15°C (which was rare) seemed warm (although we dreaded the cold winds). It didn’t take me long to understand what Dasha had meant at the airport (-10°C was actually warm in a Siberian winter). !! The Russians in our projects always had plans up their sleeves and made sure that the interns didn’t miss out on anything about the city. From the famous zoo in Novosibirsk, Ice city (a wonder park where all the rides are made out of ice), World War II memorial, and theatres to experiences like skiing, snowboarding, sauna and bungee jumping, we had it all.
I never realized how the time passed. On 30th of January as I started packing my bags for my flight back home the next morning, I looked back on the 30 most eventful days of my life so far. Every small incident made me smile, the way we had to put on layers of clothes just before going out only to put them off again on entering a building, the way we used to slip on the snow awkwardly while walking, AIESEC meetings, the people and their sweet Russian accent, the metro announcing “Studentska” (my metro station in Novosibirsk) every time I came to Alexey’s home. There was a feeling of satisfaction. It was my first trip outside India and I had successfully managed to do everything from selecting the project, to getting the visa work done, air tickets and planning the entire journey myself. It felt right. Although eager to get back home, the next day as I stood at the airport waving at the group of people who had come to see us off, a small part of me still wished that I stood on the other side of the security check rope. As my flight took off and I looked back at the white mass below, and it didn’t terrify me anymore. I smiled.
(The writer is an engineering student of Assam Engineering College, Guwahati. He is fond of swimming and reading books.)