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Focus on Safety




As you may recall from the last newsletter's travelogue, my contact in Belarus, Vladimir, had been worried about my plan to fly to Warsaw and then take the train to Brest, so we could visit the Music Maker production facility.
"The train is full of Chechnyan terrorists and bandits," Vladimir warned in his email. "They will kill you. They are not people at all, they are like animals."
The prospect of sharing a goat sausage on a train with an AK-47 carrying Chechnyan intrigued me. I thought it would be fun. But I found I could fly to Vilnius instead and take a train to Minsk from there, thus putting Vladimir's fears at ease and saving me $800 in the process.
Vilnius is in Lithuania, a country I knew absolutely nothing about. I've since learned that Easter Granny and not a bunny, brings Easter eggs to children in Lithuania. And important visitors to the country are given presents of bread and salt. More, we probably don't need to know.
A month later, as my plane approaches Vilnius' airport, I am struck by how green the nation is. Pastoral. Sylvan. Individual homes stand in a little rectangle of green, the forest immediately behind. One of them is on fire, a bright red ball of flame consuming the home. From my seat on high I can see there are no emergency vehicles near the house, nor any on the way. The plane turns more and all I can see of someone's dreams being destroyed is a dark cloud which smudges the otherwise clean country air.
We land and taxi to the gate, where no-one seems to be in a hurry. A luggage handler sits half asleep in his cart, his leg wrapped indolently over the steering wheel. As we walk off the plane, I look overhead and confirm there's not another plane in the sky. We're it. We're the action, All 60 of us.
I hold my passport tightly in my hand as I enter the building. What will the immigration process be like, I wonder? Will it be as difficult and worrying as Belarus' always is?
I have nothing to fear because no-one all...I just walk into the country. Lithuanians seem to take a relaxed attitude to life, a feeling which is confirmed when I stroll past the "Nothing to Declare" section of Customs BEFORE I've collected my luggage. That's senseless! That's crazy!
The flight from Brussels was long and I need to use the bathroom. I'm relieved (no pun intended) to find the airport has one. A long line of women is queued in front of the women's rest room. I pity them and push open the door of the men's--giving all the women in the line a view of the urinals which have been placed in full sight along the back wall; thankfully none of them being used at the moment.
When I step out, a teenage girl desperately mimes the question: Is it safe to use the men's room? The line is long and she's in desperate need. I give her a thumbs up, eliciting a disapproving frown from her mother, and a gleam of delight from the daughter, who bolts in.
I make my way to the terminal entrance and, still half looking for an official (or anyone) to report to, step out the door and into the airport's principal parking lot....which is essentially empty.
I smile and take the time to count the cars: sixteen; half of which are taxis. I look around. The entire airport isn't much larger than an average-sized American grocery store, and has less guards.
Travel guides on the internet said I could take a train from the airport to the main station in Vilnius, from where I would take the train headed for Minsk. But if there's a train station at the airport, I can't find it. I drag my increasingly heavy suitcases in the hot sun until I spy a small building hidden at the bottom of a thirty foot earthen hollow. Rail tracks alongside confirm I've found it. I work my way down, check the timetable, and find I have to wait 45 minutes for the train which will take me to the main station. This makes me nervous because there's only one train going to Minsk per day. If I miss it, I'm stuck. I glance at my watch. It's going to be tight.
A Lithuanian family waits with me for the train. The father, a haggard looking young man in an all-denim outfit nervously smokes a cigarette, which his first-born son gazes eagerly at. Their second child, a toddler, plays at the edge of the railroad tracks, which doesn't strike me as a good thing for him to be doing. His mother, a weary-looking woman, appears to be lost in thought, oblivious to her child, who now straddles one of the tracks.
I crack open a bookand lose myself in the pages. A while later I hear the rails begin to whisper. A few minutes later a single railroad car approaches around a bend, moving slowly. The mother calls the toddler to her side.
The train car stops and I enter. It's the nicest train I've ever been on. Everything is spotlessly clean and shiny; the seat cushions are deep; for all I know it's brand new. I take a seat. Not a minute later the train lurches into motion.
Ten minutes later, uniformed woman who looks exactly like Kathleen Milne (our rep in California) steps through a door and walks toward me. The resemblance is uncanny and I am left shaking my head in disbelief, because I thought I'd seen Cheryl Drown, our rep in Texas, at the Brussels airport hours earlier. I even took a second look to make sure it wasn't her.
Kathleen, as I will call her, takes the seat next to me and gives me a train ticket. I hold up a credit card, but Kathleen shakes her nead negatively. Cash only. I don't know how much the ticket costs so, opening my wallet, I remove a 20 euro note, hoping it's enough.
Kathleen gasps and makes an "Oooooh" sound. I get the feeling she's never seen a bill this large before ($22.00 at the current exchange rate). I have nothing smaller so I'm stuck and hold up my hands in a "I'm sorry but I don't have any other option" fashion. Kathleen licks her lips nervously, says something rapidly to me in Lithuanian, and runs away. She never returns and I get a free ride.
The train pulls into the main terminal soon after and I leap off the second it stops. I only have half an hour to buy both tickets and food. I find the ticket counter quickly. "I'd like to buy a ticket to Minsk," I tell the clerk, a unhappy woman whose best years seem to have passed her by in elementary school. She frowns at me and shakes her head irritatedly. "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" I ask, opting for another language, and get a stone-faced reaction in return. "Parlez-vous Fran├žais?" I try.
The nasty creature swivels her chair to the side and ignores me. She wants me to go away. I become angry and shove my face up against the circular hole cut through the glass. Gritting my teeth, I snarl: a ticket. To Minsk!"
The woman's eyes widen. Keeping a close eye on me, she calls a nearby woman for help. This woman, whose smile shows she had a happy childhood, unlike her work partner, smiles at me and motions that I should move to the next booth. With the aid of some gesturing and the writing down of numbers, she sells me a ticket. I love her.
Payment time. I hold up a Visa card, which the woman looks at quizzically. She bites her lip, then rummages through the work station, finding a credit card machine hidden beneath a pile of papers. Precious minutes tick by as she unfamiliarly enters the numbers. I'm relieved when the ticket begin to print out.
The nice woman tears off the charge slip and then, studying it closely, marks a small "X" next to the signature line--showing me where I am to sign my name. I get the impression they don't see many credit card carrying travel ing it can't possibly be right. I do the math again but the numbers come out the same: Four and three quarter hours.
I calculate some more. Seventy divided by 4.75 shows that I'll be travelling at an average speed of 14.7 miles per hour--I can ride my bicycle there faster than that!
I don't have time to cry. I rush through the station and discover that only one food kiosk is open, manned--if I may most inaccurately describe it as such--by an attractive young woman sporting the deepest and most daring decolletage I have personally ever witnessed. Her neckline doesn't just plunge, it is in free fall.
"Don't embarras yourself. Maintain eye contact at all times!" I repeat to myself as I step toward her. Thankfully, she speaks some English. Unfortunately, she tells me I can only play in Litas and thus need to exchange money first.
I have no choice beyond going the next five or so hours without eating. Following her directions, I run to what must be the world's fastest exchange service. I hand over euros and am given back well-worn bills. as well as some coins I will never be able to use.
I sprint back to the kiosk where I buy some pyrogi (one chicken, one meat,) which are microwaved into gummy looking lumps. I add a liter of Coke, which the woman throws into a bag containing the still warm pyrogi, flattening them. Yummy.
Two questions run through my brain as I rush outside. 1. Where is my train? 2. Why would a woman sporting Grand Canyonesque decolletage feel the need to wear a push-up bra? Ah, the mysteries of travel...
I find my train and step inside, relieved to find it doesn't stink. The last Russian train I was on--a train I snuck onto, at midnight, in Berlin, in the midst of the Cold War, without either a ticket or a visa (all jailable offenses)--had been stomach-turning--smelling of sweat, sauerkraut, onions and the vilest of cigarettes.
Relieved, I take a single person seat near a window and put away my baggage. Minutes later, a heavy set woman in her late twenties lurches down the aisle and stops before me, wobbling unsteadily. She burps.
My train partner for the next four and three quarter hours throws her backpack roughly into the compartment next to me. A paper sack which she holds in her hand is gently placed on the table.
The young woman sits and remains motionless for a moment, as if collecting either her thoughts, balance or breath. She removes a six-pack of beer from the paper sack and places it on the small table in front of her.
The train lurches into motion and enchantingly beautiful scenery begins to roll past. I look out the window in awe.
"Psst!" The sound of a beer can being opened is jarringly loud. My train partner stares at the foam escaping the can, her eyes bright with anticipation.
Four and three quarter hours to go.