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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

Train travel is rightly reputed to be the most romantic, relaxing and interesting way to travel. Only the third adjective applies when one takes a train in Belarus, however.
"Pzzt!" It was a sound and smell I was getting used to by now. My train companion across the way, an aggressively unattractive woman dressed in bright yellows and blues (looking exactly like a Swedish flag) had just noisily opened her fourth beer since the train left Vilnius station an hour ago. Not regular sized beers either. These were magnums. Extra-talls.
Russian techno-pop played unbearably loud, blares from tinny speakers in the roof of each compartment. The song is annoying and goes on forever, like a guitar solo from the 1970s. After a while, I catch myself tapping my foot to the beat and stop in disgust. Then, I begin to recognize the song: it's one of ours. The words come to me slowly, guaranteeing I'll have them stuck in my head for the duration of the trip: "Country roads, take me home...to the place...where I belong!" I hate John Denver! I hate Russian techno-pop! Why didn't take a flight?
I'm seated at the far end of the train compartment, next to a door which won't shut. It swings free periodically and hits me on the shoulder, or if I'm slouching, on the head. Not gently either.
I ignore these irritants and focus my attention on the beautiful scenery flying by through the window. Deep beds of ferns, so thick I wonder if the train has to force its way through them, line the tracks. Chokecherry and elderberry bushes rise in the background, their snow-white blossoms on bold display. Where there is more sun, the ferns give way to thick drifts of yellow and white wildflowers bordered by the demure pink of tall wild rose shrubs.
A man walks by and opens the door, then closes it behind him. The door doesn't shut and swings free, hitting me. The man apologizes embarrassedly and closes the door anew. It swings open again. The man bends over the door with a frown of concentration on his face and pulls it toward him, gauging the misfit of hinge and door in an apprising manner. He then steps back and smashes the door into place with an ear-shattering crash which makes everyone in the car jump and look. The door stays locked. The man smiles with satisfaction and walks away. From then on, everyone who uses the door smashes it shut.
After three door-openings I begin to develop a nervous tic. I return to the view as a means of escape. An incredibly picturesque village flashes by. A man is taking his goat--of all things--for a walk in the fields; the goat walking beside him on a leash just like a dog. How droll.
After a while, I realize I haven't eaten since before my flight left Belgium earlier that day and rummage through my things for the food I bought at Vilnius' train station. I pull the edge of the grease-stained sack back and peer inside suspiciously. My fears are confirmed. The two pyrogi (a sort of dumpling) I bought have been pressed into unrecognizable lumps by the 1.25 liter bottle of Coca-Cola and book (676 heavy pages of "Embracing Defeat; Post World War II Japan") they've shared the bag with.
I peel the first pyrogi away from the rounded contour of the Coke bottle and detach the second from the book. I take a tentative, doubt-filled bite and prove the adage of hunger being the best sauce. It's not that bad, but I can't tell if I'm eating the chicken or the meat pyrogi. That's not promising.
A few minutes later, a slovenly dressed man struggles with the door and yanks it open, leaving it to swing free and hit me (no apology proffered). He digs through his pockets and finds and lights a cigarette bent at the middle. Is it a keen sense for the ironic which leads him to light up while standing beneath no less than three 'no smoking' signs?
"Pzzt!" Beer guzzling woman has just opened her fifth Utenos, she equally ignoring the prohibitions prominently displayed in her compartment (see photo above).
The smell of cheap tobacco mingles with that of equally cheap beer and lingers. The man blithely continues smoking and then, cigarette glued to his lower lip, opens a small door opposite him and steps in. A latrine stench flows out, mixes with the cigarette and beer smell and courses through my compartment.
I've chosen the most uncomfortable seat on the train, next to a rapidly becoming drunker drunk, a smoker, and now the bathroom. It's almost laughable.
I escape by taking another bite from my pyrogi--and dear God--feel something in my mouth which has to be either a beak or a claw. At least I've resolved the question of whether I had selected the chicken or meat pyrogi).
Across the aisle from me, Beer Guzzling Woman takes off her shoes. This can't get any worse, I think, it just can't and I actually laugh out loud, which startles Beer Guzzling Woman She keeps her eyes on me suspiciously as she brings the can to her lips and finishes another beer.
A few minutes later, Beer Guzzling woman rises--need I add, unsteadily?-- to her feet and leans on the wall for support. She takes a step, then another, adds a lurch. As she approaches I realize she's lost her balance and is going to fall on top of me, which frightens me to no end because she's heavy, and terribly drunk, and not in the slightest way attractive.
She catches herself on the wall and hangs over me, breathing loudly through her mouth. It is not a pretty sight. Beer Guzzling woman straightens herself, stumbles through the door and bumps solidly into the smoker who was about to enjoy a second cigarette, almost knocking him down. He is as frightened of her as I am.
The lovely maiden stumbles to the bathroom door which she rips open and then slams shut behind her so hard that the hinges must surely show daylight between them and the door afterward.
I lean back in my seat in disgust--and THERE! It goes by my window in a flash: a magnificently carved cross, easily ten feet all and broad across the middle. The quality of the carving which adorns it is breathtaking. It's a museum piece in the middle of nowhere.
A sensation of: "Stop the train, I want to get off!" washes over me. Who would place such a beautiful thing in the middle of a forest? And why? I so desperately want to see it, stand before it, appreciate it. But it's gone, one of those classically Belorussian things: the juxtaposition of the horrible (beer lady in the bathroom) and the sublime (the cross and scenery).
The train begins to slow and stops at a modern station. Crisply dressed Lithuanian customs officials step onto the train and examine passports. The train sets into motion again and stops a few minutes later at a ratty station which looks as if it had recently been bombed.
I'm in Belarus, no doubt about it.
The door opens at the far end of the carriage and an older man, his white hair closely cropped militaristically, steps in. He wears a spotted and faded baby blue uniform made of an unfortunate polyester material destined to never, ever flatter anyone.
It's Belorussian customs. Now comes my big test, because I'm smuggling in a laptop and iPhone for Vladimir. I'm saving him substantial amounts of money in the process but also making myself liable to detention or arrest because Belorussian customs officials have no sense of humor about these kind of things. Smuggling in vodka or cigarettes they understand--but computers are dangerous. They contain information. They contain thought.
But I know how these people operate. I'm ready. I keep reading my book, putting it down in feigned surprise as the customs official steps up to me. He glances down, scans the title, sees it's in English. Trouble.
I play the part of the startled, idiot tourist and scramble for my computer case. I fumble with the zipper, dig within, fumble a bit more and then retrieve my passport--which I know he doesn't want to see. He's Customs, not Immigration.
The Customs man is confused and says something to me in Russian. I give him a blank look. "Do you speak English?" I ask. He shakes his head. I follow that with "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" Again a head shake. He's nervous now. "Parlez-vous Fran├žais?" I ask.
The customs official hands me my passport and turns away. I'm in.
But the poor man's trial hasn't ended. His eyes, sharp and discerning, meet those of Beer Guzzling Lady, red-eyed and unfocused. She slouches in her seat, beer in hand. The customs official scans the floor of the compartment which is littered with empty Utenos cans. He blanches.
A few minutes later, two toughs slam the door open at the far end of the railcar and enter. They're in charge of looking for smuggled-in materials of the more rudimentary kind. The first thug wields an oversized metal flashlight which he uses to prod, push and beat noisily away at any panel he feels may have illicit goods hidden behind. The bathroom, in particular, is given a thorough working over. Bangs, smashes and ripping sounds are heard. I swear they're dismantling the thing.
A thought comes to me: Who in their right mind would drink, eat, smoke or inject anything which had been hidden in such a monstrously filthy bathroom?
We passengers sit for a long period of time, listening to the smashing and crashing sounds work their way down the length of the train. Then the train begins to move, a welcome sensation.
Outside the window, the sun is beginning to draw low in the sky. The farm fields we pass take on the most lovely, soft golden hue. After a good half hour travel I realize I haven't seen a single house, just forest, open land, and lupines; lupines by the thousands. It's beautiful and I love watching it all flow by.
We pass a station in the middle of nowhere and I see the most beautiful young woman--the embodiment of Soviet era propaganda posters of 'youth in service to the nation' --standing rigidly at attention as the train flies by.
She holds a green wooden lollipop rigidly in the air before her at nose level, indicating the track is clear. The stick is held in the exact center of her face, she's not off a millimeter.
She's a dream. Hers is the face that could launch a thousand trains. Thick brunette curls spill from her red beret and onto her shoulders. Her spotless white blouse is tucked into a crisply starched green skirt. Red and green: Belorussian colors. I'm back in this bizarrely wonderful place again.
This is going to be great.