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To Russia with (Agape) love from Lake Oswego

by: Courtesy Agape Medical Center in Moscow, An Agape Medical Center transport truck becomes mired in the mud on a rural road outside of Moscow.

Editor's note: Lake Oswego's Pat Mohney recently returned from a journey to Russia to assist Agape Medical Center. Here are some tips from her on traveling to far-away places like rural Russia.

Adventurous travel can happen anytime of year. If you like to travel off-season, plan now. Here are seven steps to start you off on the right foot.

Step No. 1: Prepare for the unexpected.

Regardless of the time of year, vacations rarely go as arranged, especially traveling abroad. For example, my summer holiday in Moscow took an unexpected turn. Upon arrival at my host home, I received the news that the city had turned off the hot water supply to my apartment building for the next three weeks. Fortunately for my fellow travelers, I had contacts in Moscow who graciously let me shower at their apartment. Welcome to Russia!

Step No. 2: If you are traveling to a foreign country, learn a few basic words of the language.

People in other lands appreciate visitors who make an attempt to learn their language. Caution: Do not practice your new language skills with customs officials.

From Moscow I traveled with several young American men fluent in Russian, a Russian interpreter, and an 88-year-old American woman to the Komi region in northern Russia. After a 30-hour train ride, we met up with the rest of our team in Ukhta, a major city in Komi. Our Russian- speaking trip coordinator who lives in Ukhta and six or seven Russians from a local church completed the team. Needless to say, I became immersed in the language and wished I had spent more time learning a few words of Russian before my arrival.

Step No. 3: Step away from the tourist scene and visit the locals.

Each day we traveled two hours or more by bus over ruptured roads to remote villages. We took clothes, toys and personal hygiene items to the orphanages and distributed reading glasses to the elderly in nursing homes. We also put on programs for children at the village cultural centers and made home visits. The Russian people are very warm and hospitable. Many of them served us tea and sweets.

Step No. 4: Sing your way through a threatening situation.

On our second day out, we visited an old village that was founded 240 years ago. Most of the young people have left to make a better life for themselves. Once the older population dies off, the village will more than likely be abandoned.

That afternoon storm clouds darken the sky. Rains often flood the roads leading to and from this village, making it inaccessible. We visitors might have been tempted to cut our trip short, but our hearty Russian team leaders were determined to carry through with our commitment to the villagers. We didn't head back to Ukhta until our appointed time. Back on the bus, we began to sing. What a joy to hear 'Shine, Jesus, Shine' in Russian!

Step No. 5: Stop and lend someone a hand.

The rain caught up with us, threatening to make the roads impassable. Ahead of us, a small truck with an attached trailer landed on its side in the mud.

Men from our team jumped off our bus to lend a hand to set the trailer upright. In the meantime, we had picked up several stranded passengers whose cars were stuck in the mud. Had our leaders not been faithful, we would have missed the rain and this opportunity to help these unfortunate people.

Step No. 6: Travel with the Agape Medical Center.

Started 15 years ago by Dr. Bill Becknell, an American doctor from Kentucky, the medical center is based in Moscow. In addition to overseeing the medical clinic, Dr. Becknell takes teams to the 'ends of the earth.' These medical and humanitarian aid expeditions reach people in parts of Russia where no one else wants to go. You will have a trip of a lifetime. If you don't believe me, read on.

Near the end of our expedition in Komi, we took a helicopter to the village of Kedva. The helicopter lands twice a week and stays in Kedva for 20 minutes before returning to Ukhta. The only alternate route requires travel by boat, a long trek by bus over another ruptured road, and finally an hour's train ride.

After our day of activities, we left Kedva on schedule, crossing the river, planning to meet our bus driver at 3 p.m. He did not show up. The people from the village who ferried us across the river returned to the village to find another driver, someone who was not drunk and who would be willing to drive us all the way to Ukhta - or so we were told. Two hours later, after waiting in the hot sun surrounded by biting flies, a driver appeared in a supposedly reliable van. We all piled in the van, praying each time the driver had to stop to add water to the car radiator. He drove us to a small town where, it turns out, we were to catch a train back to Ukhta. Nearing the edge of town, we saw our train off in the distance headed to Ukhta. We'd missed our train by 10 minutes! The next train was scheduled to leave at 5:45 a.m. After numerous phone calls to who knows where by our Russian guide, we climbed back in the van. Minutes later we found ourselves crossing a swinging bridge, single file, to board a bus waiting for us on the other side of a river. After another long bumpy ride, we arrived safely back in Ukhta at 10 p.m. that evening.

Step No. 7: Savor the memories.

I will long remember my new Russian friends and the Agape team, the excited faces of the children at the orphanages, the kisses from the elderly, and the suspenseful moments on the fly-ridden beach.

If you are looking for adventure with a purpose, travel with the Agape Medical Center. Medical professionals are especially invited, but you do not need to have a medical background to apply. Visit Agape's Web site at www.agaperu.org for more information.