Camping With Russians

Aaaah, camping. Feel the stress and grind melt away as you pull on to a dirt road flanked on both sides by green forest. Take the seatbelt off  and crack a beer as you pull in to your camping spot. Quickly get the tent up, get the fire going, get the food out and get several beers in ya. It's the beginning of the most economical vacation possible!

Camping is popular all over the world, and everyone does it a little differently. Here in Canada it is a national pastime (for those who's families don't own an expensive waterfront cottage). I learned to camp at a very young age: my mother was an avid camper and I could build a fire and put a tent up by the time I was 5 years old! Okay, not quite so young, but I knew how to roast marshmallows and get in to the groove of camping. By the time I was 10 and in Scouts I was able to camp like a pro.

In Korea camping is different. One time my wongjang-nim (school director aka "boss") took me "camping" with his family to a spot in the Korean mountains about an hour outside of Daegu. I was very curious to see how Koreans camped. It turns out this particular "campground" came with motel rooms, sauna and restaurant. The only thing camplike about it was that a large group of Korean youth evangelists were having some type of revival trip, and they had a giant bonfire going and had brought along their obligatory noray-bong (karaoke) machine. Seeing me, I was forced into singing a rendition of a Beatles song in front of 100 Korean Christians all wearing red t-shirts and cheering a bit too over-enthusiastically. 

That night my host (aka "boss) took me to the jimja-bong (spa) where I had to strip completely naked and get into a hot tub with 20 other completely naked guys. I was happy to put on a comfortable pair of cool and baggy Asian-style pants, to go sleep in a common room where more than a hundred other Koreans (women, children, old, young) were all sprawled out on little mats sleeping. 

The next day my boss' wife made a freakin' delicious samgyetang lunch. It was the first time I ever had it and holy fuck was it good! It's basically a whole mini-chicken stuffed with rice and ginger and boiled to perfection. It's served in a chicken broth (her's had baby bok choy floating around) and a side dish of rock salt. The chicken is so tender that it flakes off easily for your chopsticks, you dab it in the bowl of salt and chow down. Yumm! 

So while the Christian revival, the spa, the communal sleeping room and the samgyetang were all interesting experiences, they most definitely were NOT camping!

Sam-gye-tang, one of my favorite Korean dishes

After several years in Korea I returned home to Canada and one of the first things I did was to go camping with some friends on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. REAL camping. It was such real camping that we had a special zone in the forest for shit which was marked by a toilet paper roll on a branch. We dug little pits in the ground, pooped into it, and buried it up, making sure to stick a small twig in the dirt to mark the spot. 

Compared to camping in Korea, it was pretty hardcore.

Fast-forward 7 years and I'm living with a Russian in Victoria, British Columbia. A Russian, I might add, who has never been camping before. 

Now, from what I understand, Russians camp pretty much the same as Canadians but with a few distinct Russian twists: they usually go in large groups and it's usually something that younger people do. In Canada you will find campgrounds are filled with people of all ages. I never visited a campground in Russia so I'm only going off what my Russian wife and Russian friends have told me.

Katya and I needed a vacation, and I had a week off work for vacation, and we didn't have enough money to go to Cuba, so we opted instead to go camping! Katya had recently met a rather large Russian community in Victoria filled with expats and immigrants from the motherland, so she invited a couple of them to join us. Although I was in Canada, I was suddenly going camping with a bunch of Russians!

BC Parks is an amazing service with very low rates and pristine, beautiful campgrounds. I was able to book everything I needed on their well-designed website (the British Columbia government has fully embraced web 2.0 and almost all services can be accomplished online). With a group of Russians in a small convoy of cars we set out. I was, ironically, the only native-English speaking Canadian amongst them. Even more telling, I was the only one in the group who had been camping before! 

We only went for four days, to a site just west of Nanaimo (I don't remember the name). I ended up setting up my own tent, and then realized that the other groups were having trouble with their tents, so one by one I helped everyone set their tents up. Although there was a half-dozen or so in our party, I realized that while I was setting up people's tents, nobody had started a fire or even started collecting wood! Not only that, but all the Russian women in our party had been busy bees, fussing and chattering and moving in a flurry of activity from the moment we decorate the picnic tables and spread all the food out on them!

Seriously, there were two picnic tables and by the time I had finished setting up the second tent, both tables had tablecloths spread out on them. All the food had been emptied from coolers and placed in ceramic bowls and dishes. Someone had even brought a vase with some flowers in it for the centerpiece! 

I just shook my head and continued to set up the last tents, then drafted two of the Russian men to come with me to pick up some firewood and gather twigs and branches for kindling. After 90 minutes or so I had the entire camp set up and a fire going. I cracked a beer and sat in my camping chair and then casually asked the ladies what they were planning on doing with the food when the bears and raccoons picked up the scent. 

"Bears?" Katya asked me. 

Katya had a blast on that particular trip, and learned pretty quickly how to camp. She had her first-ever roasted marshmallows and fell in love with them. "I've only seen these in movies!" she declared, her mouth stuffed with chewy melted marshmallow. "They're awesome!"

 Fastforward another two years, and Katya and I are camping again, this time with my siblings in sunny Ontario. 

We had chosen a park on the shores of Lake Huron, MacGregor Point (10 minutes south of Port Elgin). My sister Anni, her boyfriend Steve, my brother Yakob and Katya and I all went. My family are experts in camping so there was no silliness like flowers and four-course meals. Beer and meat on a fire were our staples this time. Katya had a great idea before we left: shashleek.

Shashleek is an Uzbeki food which is wildly popular in Russia, and for good reason. It's a kabob, basically, but with huge pieces of deliciously marinated meat on a skewer, sometimes eaten with a soft flatbread. We bought a huge piece of fresh pork tenderloin from the butcher and then Katya and I prepared the marinade. We let it marinated in the fridge for 48 hours before we went camping.

Ironically-enough, this time I was the one who needed help setting up our tent. I picked Katya up after work and we drove the 2 hours to MacGregor Point, so it was dark by the time I started setting up the tent. I have no problem putting a tent up in the dark, but for some reason this time I was all confused. It didn't help that Katya and my brother had both jumped in as well and were jamming tent poles everywhere and pegging things down while I was trying to get everything organized. We ended up having to tear out all the poles and pegs and start again. 

The rest of the trip was great. We got rained out our first day, but that didn't stop us from getting wildly drunk and wandering around the local beaches with cups of rum and coke. My brother set up a dartboard (he lost most of the darts in the forest behind the tree the dartboard was attached to) and a curious raccoon circled our campsite day and night. Poor little guy; we didn't leave anything out for him. This was a full-service campground with modern washroom and shower facilities nearby and fresh water taps dotted all over, so we even managed to stay clean!

The day we left my siblings piled into my brother's car and set out early for the long 8-hour drive back to Ottawa, while Katya and I, with a 90 minute drive ahead of us, zipped up to Port Elgin and hung out on the beach for most of the afternoon. The water was cold but once you were in it grew bearable. 

Katya absolutely loves camping now. I've had the unique privilege to camp with Koreans and Russians and, while I certainly enjoyed the food both of these cultures bring to the table (pun intended), for sheer relaxation and goofy camping fun, I prefer the Canadian way!

Our Russian shashlik, made in Ontario!


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