SAN DIEGO — After graduating from Mira Mesa High School last June, some of Jason Whaley's classmates jumped on the first plane to Hawaii, checked into a cheap hotel for a week, and celebrated on the beach until they acquired a glowing, magenta sunburn.
Whaley eschewed the traditional graduation partying to ride stuffy trains to 32 cities in 23 days and eat beet soup--paying $3,300 for the privilege.
"It was worth every penny," said Whaley, 17, an aspiring photojournalist who shot 75 rolls of film--about 2,700 pictures--during a three-week trip to the Soviet Union this summer.
"That camera was like an appendage. Whatever was happening, Jason was always right there with his camera," said Bill Melton, head chaperon on the Russian excursion that Whaley made with 32 other students from San Diego County.
The trip was sponsored by People to People, a nonprofit organization founded by the U.S. State Department during the Eisenhower Administration to encourage international student exchange.
"I knew it wasn't going to be a vacation. I knew it was going to be a very vigorous, learning-oriented trip, and I was ready for it," Whaley said.
He prepared not only by reading more than 70 articles written by the State Department, but by writing to Kodak, Agfa and Fuji to request film for the trip. The latter two sent a total of 45 rolls.
But Minolta came through in the biggest way. After the company president in Osaka, Japan, received a letter from Whaley, he agreed to give him a camera, lens and motor drive--about $2,000 worth of equipment--in exchange for publication rights of the photos Whaley shot.
Some of those pictures will appear in the 1990 edition of Minolta Mirror, the company's annual international journal of photography. Such exposure will somewhat eclipse Whaley's previous career highlight: having pictures published in the Mira Mesa Marauder, the high school yearbook.
Whaley's group flew from San Diego to New York, then to Helsinki, Finland. They then traveled by train to Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea, where they got as crazy as their friends who had gone to Hawaii. They even threw a watermelon off the balcony of their 17th-story room just to watch it splatter.
"We had a lot of time, so we did some very American things," Whaley said.
They sobered up quickly, however, when they arrived in Kiev and realized they were a mere 60 miles from Chernobyl. Although everyone in the group had read about the nuclear disaster there, they were shocked to see how close the plant was to the huge city.
"When we first got there, I even considered fasting, but I figured I'd still be irradiated from the water," Whaley said, admitting that he was overly concerned about radiation poisoning. "Actually, I ended up having some of the best food on the trip there. . . . No matter what anyone says about borscht, I think it's good."
There were other highlights: a dinner and long visit at the home of a Soviet librarian in Kiev, talking politics with members of the city council in Minsk.
Another rare opportunity arose while Whaley walked with friends near Red Square. He saw a demonstration being held by members of Hare Krishna and, realizing the significance of a religious protest in a communist country, began clicking. He told his friends to take the bus back to their hostel; he'd take a cab.
While Whaley found the Soviets friendly, easy to talk to and curious about American life, it was a different story when he took to the streets with his camera.
"One of the hardest things for me as a photographer was to find someone smiling. When I went for my home stay (a visit to a resident's home), the librarian told me, 'That's because we have nothing to smile about.' Their country is changing rapidly, and they're scared."
Whetted His Appetite
Whaley got some of his best shots in Moscow. His favorite, a picture of the spiraled towers of St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square rising against a surreal gray sky, is the only photo he's printed. Developing the rest of the film may take a while for Whaley, who works as a cook.
The trip has merely whetted his appetite for travel. He hopes to attend the world-famous Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, then work as a photographer for National Geographic magazine.
Whaley plans to spend the next two years working in a lab or at a photography studio, cleaning floors if has to, to save money to attend Brooks.
Meanwhile, he's happy to rest on the memories of three weeks in the Soviet Union.
"Without a doubt, this has been the best experience of my life," he said. "I don't know when, but someday I'm going to go back."