Instead of spending my spring break, otherwise known as travel week, exploring somewhere in Russia or Europe, I chose to spend my travel week doing the alternative break in Kaliningrad, a beautiful Russian region located between Poland and Lithuania, bordering the Baltic Sea. The CIEE alternative breaks are different because they allow students to truly immerse themselves in Russian culture and get to know Russian people through volunteering opportunities. This particular break allowed students to volunteer in a hospital, animal shelter, and eco-volunteering.
Two other students attended this alternative break with me, and it was run by Arina, one of the CIEE staff members and a native of Kaliningrad. Arina was fantastic and set up the hostel we would be staying in for our week-long trip, the fun trips we had planned, and getting in contact with the different volunteering organizations we would be working with. Without giving too much of a spoiler, I have to say that I truly think I had more fun and got more out of this alternative break than I would have if I had traveled on my own accord.
Our first day in Kaliningrad was spent touring the city. As I previously said, Arina is originally from Kaliningrad, so I feel like she was able to give us an amazing tour of this beautiful city.
During our tour, we also stopped at the Kant Cathedral and stopped in the Kant Cathedral Museum as well. This was a great introduction of the melding between Germanic and Russian cultures as well as an overview of the history and culture of Kaliningrad itself.
Of course, after our walking city tour, which ended up being a couple hours long, we stopped to get gelato at a place in the mall in the center of the city that Arina highly recommended. I’m a bit sad I wasn’t able to get a picture of the gelato we got, but it was so delicious that we were all too absorbed eating it to remember to grab a picture. We headed back to our hostel and rested a little before heading out to meet the first organization we were working with, Верю в Чудо (Verju v Chudo), which translates to “I believe in a miracle”.
Verju v Сhudo is the biggest volunteer organization in Kaliningrad, specifically in regards to children’s hospitals and orphanages, although their volunteer services expand to children and young people under 23 with oncological, genetic, and other serious diseases. Originally we had teamed up with Verju v Сhudo to volunteer in both a children’s hospital and orphanage; however, we were unable to volunteer in the orphanage for a few reasons, so we volunteered in the hospital two separate days. First and foremost, the volunteers at Verju v Chudo were some of the sweetest people I have ever met. Arina, Sadie, Kiki, and I met Masha, one of the heads of Verju v Chudo we were working with, and she brought us to where the organization was located in the hospital.
We were greeted with a fantastic welcome: traditional Russian music was playing, they were wearing traditional Russian costumes, there was a pop quiz, and there was even a bear that made an appearance. We spent our time there eating good food, drinking kvass and tea, and getting to know the volunteers better as well as getting to tell the volunteers about us.
Both days we volunteered at the children’s hospital with Verju v Chudo were spent drawing with two different groups of kids. Our overall prompt was for them to draw what they thought of when they thought about America, but of course, they could free draw.
I was a bit nervous at volunteering in the hospital at first, especially since the hospital’s appearance was so different than the hospitals I’ve seen in America. None of the walls were white, there wasn’t an oppressive spell of cleaning supplies, and it wasn’t eerily quiet in the hallways. Nevertheless, there was a certain level of uneasiness not only because I was a bit nervous but also because I just didn’t know what to make of how different the hospital looked. The second we met the group kids, though, the mood and feeling totally changed. It no longer felt so intimidating, and I was so excited to get to sit there and get to talk to these kids as we were drawing. Although Arina said we must have made those kids’ days by volunteering them and showing them that we care, I think that the kids made my days. All of them were so kind and inquisitive about how long I had studied Russian, why I had, what I thought of Russia and Kaliningrad, and about life in America in general.
Since we volunteered at the children’s hospital later in the day, we spent the first part of our morning at the Amber Museum, since Kaliningrad is known for all the natural amber found there. In general Russia is known for mass amounts of amber; however, Kaliningrad is particularly well known for it. We even got to see where amber is mined! I had thought amber was pretty before, but truly I found an entirely new appreciation for it after seeing each piece in the museum. Seeing how amber was utilized and styled throughout the different eras of Russian history, specifically the history of Kaliningrad was astounding.
The following day was probably the roughest day during our entire time in Kaliningrad. This was the day we went to the animal shelter, located outside of Kaliningrad. Arina had warned us that this would be difficult and sad, but I didn’t necessarily expect just how shocking this experience would be. I’ll spare you the details of the shelter, but I’ll give you a brief rundown. Dissimilar to the United States, shelters don’t receive any sort of funding. Shelters in Russia receive money solely through donations, which means overpopulation, lack of proper supplies, and overall incredibly poor living conditions for the animals. The shelter we went to was specifically for dogs, and there were more dogs than I could count. All the dogs were different ages, some having been a week old and just opening their eyes to some being elderly. Of course, all the dogs were in different medical conditions. Some had missing eyes, others had three limbs, some dogs had wounds still healing, and some seemed to be in good physical health but were sick. As someone who has had eight dogs throughout her life and adopted them from shelters, this hit home hard.
Between the four of us, we walked something about 26 dogs. It may have been rough, and I may have cried while I was there, but I cannot emphasize as to just how rewarding it was. The dogs were some of the sweetest animals ever, and the people who worked there were so kind. These people lived on site and worked with the dogs 24/7, making sure that they were doing the best they could to ensure all the dogs were cared for. You could tell that they truly loved these dogs and just wanted the best for them.
Thankfully Arina knew just how difficult this day would be, and we had a completely free evening when we returned to our hostel in Kaliningrad. We ran out to grab face masks, so we had a mini spa day when we returned, and then we finished our night by going out to the movies and seeing “Us”, the new Jordan Peele movie.
The following morning we went to Yantarnyy, Arina’s hometown. This was our day of eco-volunteering with local volunteers to create эко-тропа (or an eco-path) by planting, but before we met up with them, we had a mini exploration of Yantarnyy. We visited another amber museum, we searched and collected our own amber, we saw an amber mine, and we walked along the beach and got to see the Baltic sea.
Midway through the day we met up with the volunteers and got down to work. Our task was to clean up part of a park and plant flowers along the walk there. I was expecting that the volunteers would be our age and older, but the volunteers were actually students in year eight to year eleven. It was amazing to see kids that young out volunteering and contributing to their community in such a positive way. In addition, it was also fantastic getting to talk to these kids. They were genuinely interested in why we chose to study Russian and what we were doing here, but I found it most amazing and inspiring that so many of these kids already had such a strong idea as to what they want to do in their lives and their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. There was something truly heartwarming about it all.
Afterwards, we were lucky enough to get to meet Arina’s lovely family. Her grandmother made sure we had more than enough food, the best part of it being the homemade cinnamon apple hand pies and the fresh birch tree juice. I think it was the best way to end our last volunteering experience in Kaliningrad, as it was a nice culmination of everything that we had done within the last week and a sense of accomplishment and finally being able to relax.
On our final full day in Kaliningrad, we stopped by our new favorite spot, Port-o-Coffee, for brunch before we headed out on some excursions. We had stopped at Port-o-Coffee a few days prior on a whim, and after that, we went there every single day for breakfast. If you’re ever in Kaliningrad, I cannot recommend Port-o-Coffee enough. Of course, I recommend visiting all the museums and getting to experience the city, but oh wow, was this coffee shop amazing, and I know that we’re all pretty sad that there isn’t a Port-o-Coffee located in Saint Petersburg.
After we had brunch, we headed out to the aquarium as well as the marzipan museum. Both places were so much fun, but I have to tell you that the marzipan may have been my favorite out of the two. I never expected that a city could have such a rich history involving such a sweet treat, but I learned that Kaliningrad actually has a pretty deep history with marzipan. Additionally, getting to buy and then snack on true Kaliningrad marzipan was amazing and so, so delicious. We ended the night going to an organ performance inside a church. The following morning we checked out of the hostel and headed out to the airport to head back to Saint Petersburg.
I was sad leaving Kaliningrad, but at the same time, I was happy I was able to head back to Saint Petersburg and get back to school. I’ll admit that I had my fears at first about going to Kaliningrad and volunteering. I was nervous because I knew it meant solely communicating in Russian as well as possibly running into some, for lack of a better word, upsetting environments. Although some of the volunteering experiences exposed me to some not so pleasant sides of things, I absolutely would not change this experience for the world. Meeting and interacting with the people I did was truly a touching, powerful experience. I wish I could tell everyone I met what a powerful impact they had on me and my time in Kaliningrad. I’m never going to forget this experience, and I’m truly going to cherish it. I’m so thankful that I was provided this chance to immerse myself in this experience, and I’m thankful for how much I learned and grew as a person during this time. I cannot think of a better way to have spent my travel week.